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Kathy Whelan

Posted on July 04, 2024

Have you ever popped something in your mouth and wondered afterward why you did it? At times, we might eat when we’re not actually hungry, and this can become a problem. By understanding why we do this and how we can bring it under control, we build tools for managing one of the most common causes of overeating.

“Emotional eating” occurs not because we need nourishment but because we feel another kind of need. We may feel an urge to eat when we’re bored, tired, frustrated or procrastinating. We might seek comfort from food when we experience stress, sadness or loneliness. As Dr. Mark Hyman so aptly puts it in a podcast on this subject, it’s less about what we’re eating than about what’s eating us. At these times, we’re hungering for something, but it’s not really food.

It's important to understand that emotional eating is natural. We are emotional beings, and even as infants we were soothed by having something in our mouths. Sometimes it’s a positive thing, like responding to joy by sharing a special meal with family or friends.

Too often, though, particularly when it is habitual and has led to overweight or obesity, emotional eating is not helpful. Then we are apt to feel guilt and shame. But we now know that genetic and environmental factors can contribute to dysregulated eating, so we should let go of these negative feelings and focus instead on what we can do to manage our eating impulses.

Here are some steps we can take to bring emotional eating under control:

Be conscious of cues. Emotional eating starts with an urge to eat that is unaccompanied by signs of hunger like stomach rumbling, loss of energy or headache. Those who are particularly reactive to food cues may experience “food noise:” constant, intrusive thoughts about food. Pausing to observe non-hunger cues and food noise is the first step toward taming the urge to eat emotionally.

Ask questions. The next step is to ask ourselves what we’re really feeling. Putting a name to an emotion helps us answer more questions: What is it I really need? What besides eating can I do to meet this need? Do I need a hug, a nap, a friend to talk to, a break from my work? Having slowed down to ask these questions, we should let them sink in. Trying to suppress the urge to eat will make it last longer as will thoughts that we shouldn’t be feeling the way we do. Taking this time to reflect allows us to see more clearly what we need and what could satisfy that need. Then, instead of reacting automatically, we can respond thoughtfully.

Prime the environment. When shopping for groceries, we should avoid buying the foods we’re most apt to turn to when emotional eating impulses arise, being sure to stock healthy foods for regular meals that will help us feel satisfied and keep blood sugar stable. It’s important to bear in mind the connection between food and mood and steer away from poor quality, highly processed foods that contribute to cravings that are difficult to control.

Learn from mistakes. As always, habit change takes time and inevitably involves setbacks. Instead of feeling shame and becoming discouraged when we stumble, we should exercise self-compassion to learn from what happened and use that knowledge in moving forward.

By taking these steps, we can congratulate ourselves for addressing what may be a significant part of why we have not met our health goals. For some of us, though, self-help will not be enough. In that case, it may be time to engage in therapy with a mental health professional to better understand our emotional eating and assess whether an eating disorder is present.

Today no discussion of overeating should overlook the growing popularity of drugs used for weight loss. For some, they provide, for the first time, hope of bringing weight under control and a fresh start on the journey to better health. Some patients have reported a reduction not only in hunger but in food noise as well. But these semaglutide drugs, which are still mysterious to scientists, are not for everyone, and their positive effects last only as long as the drugs are taken. So for optimal results that are sustainable in the long run, healthy lifestyle practices – including management of emotional eating – are still an important ingredient that will grow our confidence in our ability to have a positive impact on our health.

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