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What is Emotional Eating? Exploring Common Triggers

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedJanuary 25, 2024

Emotional eating happens when you use food to cope, suppress, soothe, or address intense feelings and emotions. Most of the time, emotional eating is associated with negative emotional conditions, although positive emotions are also proven to be possible triggers.

Emotional eating is prevalent in obesity and contributes to poor outcomes of weight loss programs. One can attribute its prevalence to its common triggers. According to a study, boredom is the most common emotional trigger of emotional eating.

For an emotional eater, learning about the common triggers that send them into a spiral of emotional eating is the key to helping manage and control it! Need help? Continue reading to know more about the typical triggers that can make a person emotionally eat!

🔑 Key Takeaways:

Emotional eating happens when an individual uses food to soothe and deal with their emotions instead of satisfying their hunger.

  • Emotional hunger is different from physical hunger.
  • Eating triggers are the stimulus that activates or stimulates your need to eat emotionally.
  • Several triggers can result in emotional eating.
  • People can incorporate positive changes in their eating habits to curb their unhealthy responses to emotions.
  • Recognizing and identifying your triggers is the first step to managing and controlling your emotional eating.
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Understanding Emotional Eating

People tend to turn to food whenever they feel emotional. Since food and eating ticks the body’s reward system, it can naturally make you feel better. It’s why people use food to cope with a bad day or stressful situation.

Know that occasional overindulgence is fine, but when it happens too often, that could be emotional eating. Now, let’s dive deeper into emotional eating, its causes, and ways to curb it.

What is Emotional Eating?

People don't only use food to satisfy their hunger. Many also turn to it to deal with their feelings and emotions.

Emotional eating is when an individual uses food and eating to respond to various emotions. As said, emotional eating is typically related to negative emotions. Strong negative emotions like fear, sadness, and anxiety can push people to eat more than usual.

Positive emotions like happiness, joy, and comfort can also trigger emotional eating. Usually, when a person achieves something, they want to reward themselves, typically with delicious but unhealthy food — mostly overly sweet, oily, or greasy meals or snacks.

Since emotional eating is not about appetite or hunger, it is typical to eat more food and calories than usual during these episodes. It is the physical response to an unmet and unsatisfied psychological need.

Another thing to know is that emotional hunger is hugely different from physical hunger.

How Does Emotional Hunger Differ From Physical Hunger?

Before learning about emotional eating triggers, you must distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger. It can be challenging, especially since they have aspects that overlap.

Physical hunger (or biological hunger) happens when your brain communicates your physical need for energy and food. It occurs when your stomach is empty, prompting your brain to send signals indicating that you are hungry.

It often comes with physical sensations like stomach growling and rumbling. Painful and nauseous feelings can also indicate physical hunger. However, signs of it can also go beyond sensations on the stomach, like sleepiness, poor concentration, and fatigue.

On the other hand, emotional hunger is the desire for food due to your emotions. Emotional hunger makes you crave specific food while in intense emotional conditions.

Often, emotional hunger makes you crave sugary snacks or junk food that can give you an instant rush. It also typically leads you to mindless eating.

What Are Common Triggers For Emotional Eating?

A trigger can lead you to another behavior. It can be a person, place, situation, or thing that can elicit an intense emotional response. Typically, triggers are associated with traumatic experiences and memories.

Apart from trauma, professionals also use triggers in other mental health contexts — like activating or worsening symptoms of a condition or disorder. Regarding emotional eating, a trigger is a stimulus that can set off, activate, or prompt your need to overeat.

Hunger is the body's natural eating trigger. However, that is mainly due to physical hunger. You may feel hungry for other reasons, as well.

For emotional eating, emotional triggers are often common. However, there are also instances when you get triggered by a situation or environment.

To keep you aware, here are the typical emotional eating triggers you need to know:

Stress

Stress and stressful situations are among the most typical triggers of emotional eating. Mainly, stress triggers the brain's reward processing center. That prompts some people to turn to their comfort foods during stressful situations.

When constantly stressed, the body produces high cortisol levels (better known as the stress hormone). According to a study, stress can induce overeating, especially food containing high sugar, energy, and fat. These are foods that give the body a sudden burst of pleasure.

❗Remember:

The more constant uncontrolled stress in your body, the more likely you turn to unhealthy food for emotional relief.

Boredom

Being bored and not having anything to do can trigger emotional eating. Even people who are emotional eaters tend to turn to food when they feel bored.

Humans often live stimulating and active everyday lives. When you have nothing to do, your mind will likely wander to food. It's mostly to fill that boredom and lack of activity.

Usually, it is not a bad or negative habit. Unfortunately, boredom can be an issue if you regularly feed your feelings and emotions with food.

Boredom can come with feelings of emptiness. Food is something that can both occupy your mouth and time. By eating, you can temporarily fill that emptiness and distract yourself from feelings like dissatisfaction.

The best option and solution is to find a hobby or activity that can take your mind off food. Find something to do that is more satisfying than eating.

Childhood Habits

Feelings of nostalgia can drive emotional eating. Cherished memories of a backyard barbeque with your family every weekend can make you crave grilled meat. Or fond memories of baking with your mom can make you suddenly want cookies or cake.

Also, memories plaguing your childhood can influence your eating habits. For instance, say that your parents typically reward you with ice cream or chocolate whenever you behave or get good grades at school. These habits can very well carry over into your adulthood.

Anxiety

Anxiety is the cousin of stress. It is another significant trigger that can lead you to emotional eating.

As the American Psychological Association explains, this condition relates to feelings of worried thoughts, stress, and tension. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms like dizziness, trembling, shaking, and increased heartbeat.

People can overeat to distract themselves from the constant parade of concerned and worried intrusive thoughts.

📒 Note:

While many lead to emotional eating when anxious, some opt for the opposite direction. Instead of overeating, they don't eat at all.

Due to their anxiety, they lose their appetite and refuse to eat. Their feelings are too intense that they supersede and push away their feelings of hunger. This kind of emotional response to anxiety is worrying.

Lack of Sleep and Fatigue

You can link a lack of restful sleep to weight gain. It makes you feel fatigued. It is easier to mindlessly overeat when you feel tired and restless, especially when you are tired from doing an unpleasant activity or task.

Often, when you are stuck doing things you don't necessarily want to do, food is probably a thought you will have. You consider food as a reward to appease your tiredness.

Social Influences

Getting together with family or friends for a nice meal is an effective and pleasant way to relieve your stress. Unfortunately, it can lead to overeating. It may be because the food is in front of you or because of the pleasant atmosphere you created with your people.

There are also instances when you feel nervous in social situations, leading you to use food as a distraction. Or perhaps your family or friends encourage you to eat more, prompting you to go along with it since it's easier.

Also, while hanging out with other people, some friends ask to get pizza during night outs or dinner to celebrate something.

Anger

Many people use eating to deal with and cope with intense negative emotions like anger. If you get annoyed or frustrated because of work or an encounter in public, you tend to eat the frustrations out. It's easier than dealing with the situation head-on.

In the heat of the moment, food can serve as a tasteful distraction that can get your mind off painful and strong emotions. Unfortunately, it's a temporary solution. Your anger will undoubtedly return — usually stronger and with other negative emotions.

It is best to deal with your anger directly, although not in an explosive way. Deal with the situation by speaking calmly, if possible.

Seasonal Stresses

Sometimes, the season can trigger your emotional eating. Colder weather or warmer days can lead to episodes of emotional eating. Holidays like Christmas, New Year, and Thanksgiving are common triggers.

How To Curb Your Emotional Eating?

Emotions and food might make you seem helpless in controlling and handling your emotional eating habits. However, note that it is still possible to make positive changes to help you manage it.

Now, how can you stop emotional eating?

  • Learn About Emotional Eating Triggers: Determine the triggers that make you think of eating. Remember that emotional eating is also tied to positive emotions like happiness and excitement. A great way to do that is by starting a food or emotion diary to keep track of your triggers.
  • Find Ways To Cope: Once you know your triggers, you can begin making changes. If stress triggers you, find other ways to cope and manage stress. If boredom makes you think of food, look for a task or hobby to keep you occupied.
  • Practice Mindful Eating: Be extra mindful of the food you are eating from now on. Avoid buying snacks that you tend to reach for when you have the urge to eat while stressed. Eating more mindfully can help you focus on your meal and appetite, which helps curb overeating.
  • Seek Help: Find people that will support you. Talk about your emotions and unhealthy responses to family and friends. If it persists even after the changes, consider getting help from professionals.

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Wrap Up

At some point, most people experience emotional eating. Many do it occasionally, while others succumb to it completely and entirely.

There are many potential triggers for emotional eating. Stress, boredom, anxiety, anger, childhood habits, fatigue, seasonal stresses, and social influences are some of the most common reasons people become emotional eaters.

You can predict and prevent upcoming episodes by recognizing and identifying your triggers to emotional eating. Know your triggers and cravings; that is the key to curbing and managing your emotional eating tendencies.

By tackling them, you can slowly overcome your unhealthy habit and find happiness and joy in eating again!

FAQs on Common Triggers for Emotional Eating

When does emotional eating become a problem?

Emotional eating becomes a problem when it begins affecting your mental and physical health. Note that emotional hunger tends to be satisfied by unhealthy food choices.

What are the signs of an emotional eater?

The most typical sign that indicates you are an emotional eater is suddenly craving specific food when particularly emotional.

Is emotional eating an eating disorder?

It is not an eating disorder, though it can result in one. Just note that emotional eating functions similarly to 'traditional' eating disorders, like binge eating.

Does food relate to emotions?

Studies confirmed the connection between emotional conditions, food choices, and eating disorders. There is a perception that food can fill a void or feelings of emptiness that may arise when feeling sad, lonely, and isolated.

How do you manage your emotional health to stop overeating?

You can make several positive changes that can help you better manage your emotional health. Among those are taking care of your physical health, being aware of your emotions, managing stress, and striving for work-life balance.

How can I change my mindset in eating?

To embrace a healthier mindset in eating, you need to practice lessening your responsiveness to food and emotional triggers.

Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
Virtual weight loss solution
A personalized GLP-1 medication program (eg. Wegovy, Ozempic), delivered to you via our partner Korb Health
Illustration of a healthcare provider asking questions on a smart phone.
  • Free consultation; program starts at $269/mo
  • Checkmark Inside Circle.Customized online program and wellness coaching
  • Prescription medications and supplies shipped to your door