Are You an Emotional Eater?

Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food – usually ‘comfort’ or junk food – in response to feelings instead of hunger. While real hunger is biological, emotional eating is based on psychological urges. So it is often not a growling tummy but raging emotions that prompt us to raid the fridge or line up at the fast food counter.

According to experts several factors can result in over-eating and unwanted weight gain. These include depression, boredom, loneliness, chronic anger, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with inter personal relationships and poor self esteem. Contrary to popular belief it is not only teens and youngsters who may become emotional eaters, but a number of older persons also fall into the trap.


An emotional eater consumes food in reaction to a situation or emotion rather than hunger. According to experts the situations and emotions that trigger us to eat fall into five main categories:

  1. Social
    This entails eating when around with other people, eg at parties and get togethers. One is encouraged by others to eat (eg by the hostess) or one eats to fit in (everyone else is eating) or one eats while arguing. Business lunches/dinners are also social situations when one may tend to eat emotionally.

  2. Emotional
    This is in response to boredom, loneliness, sadness, depression, restlessness, hurt or disappointment, hopelessness, an overwhelming need for love or attention and/or a lack of meaning in one’s life. Eating seems to be a way to ‘fill the void’.

  3. Situational
    One often eats because there is opportunity eg at a restaurant, while passing a bakery etc. Also, eating is often associated with certain activities like watching TV, seeing a movie at a theatre, watching a sporting event etc.

  4. Thoughts
    One may eat as a result of negative self worth or making excuses for eating or scolding oneself for one’s looks or lack of will power.

  5. Physiological
    This involves eating in response to physical cues eg increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure a headache or other pain.

Food Choices

Studies have shown that food choices often act as a mirror showing exactly what emotions are prompting the desire to overeat. If you are one of those who crave something to eat even when you are not terribly hungry, and opt for cookies, chocolates, potato chips, hot dogs, nuts etc, it means your feelings of anger, stress, frustration. Resentment, burnout, bitterness, self-disgust or being overwhelmed and/or your desire for excitement are causing you to seek chewy, crunchy foods. You may be munching on a cookie or candy bar but what you really want is to chew on something in your life: deadlines, exams, projects etc. This sort of craving is ‘head hunger’ because it is generated by thoughts, attitudes and pressures.

On the other hand if you choose pasta, ice cream, bread, a milkshake, a slice of cake, eggs etc it means you are probably struggling with feelings such as boredom, loneliness, sadness, grief, depression, restlessness, hurt or disappointment, hopelessness, an overwhelming need for love or attention and/or a lack of meaning in your life. You also may be feeling fatigued or ill. Such emotions are called ‘heart hunger’ because people who are feeling them often crave soft, creamy comfort foods to fill a void in their lives.

Mood and Food:

There is a distinct relationship between mood and food. Variations in craving for food may be due to unexpected changes at work, going out for dinner, dining at a buffet etc when one tends to overeat. Moods can also trigger over eating. Major life events like unemployment, health problems, divorce and shortage of emotional support as well as daily life hassles like a difficult commute to work, bad weather, a delayed flight or train, changes in normal routine, a misunderstanding with a friend etc are both thought to trigger emotional eating.

Emotional eaters do not necessarily eat more food, they eat more unhealthy food eg starchy, sweet, salty and fatty food. Consequently if stress or negative emotions are chronic, emotional eating can cause health problems like weight gain and increased cardio vascular risk.


Where then is the remedy? How can emotional eaters curb their cravings? Of course there is no magic formula. However the following tips may be useful:

  • Maintain a Food Diary
    Diligently jot down every morsel of food you put in your mouth. Chances are you will be shocked at the long list and the ‘avoidable’ items.

  • Develop Alternatives to Eating
    Whenever you are tempted to raid the fridge or open the cookie tin, do something else. Go for a walk, listen to music, play with the dog, call up a friend, clean your room, do some ironing etc. This will distract your mind away from food.

  • Learn to Recognise True Hunger
    Train yourself to recognise true hunger eg at mealtimes. Have hearty, healthy meals, relax at mealtimes and do not eat absent mindedly. Even if you are eating alone, aly the table, use the proper crockery and cutlery and make it an enjoyable experience. Dont give in to snacking between meals. If you must snack, keep healthy ones at hand: Fresh fruits, carrot or cucumber sticks, brown bread, roasted popcorn etc are all low fat and healthy munchies. Dont keep ice cream, chocolates, sweets, pastries etc at home.

  • Exercise Regularly
    Keep fit by exercising regularly. Go for a morning walk, do aerobics, free hand exercises or yoga or play a game of badminton or tennis. You can even patronise a nearby gym. When you see your body coming back to shape you will get over your craving for food.

  • Nurture Yourself in New Ways
    Keep some time aside for yourself. Pursue a new hobby or learn a craft. Practice meditation or relaxation. Learn a new foreign language. Visualise yourself as an attractive and friendly person. Be polite and courteous to family members, neighbours, colleagues and menials. Dont be sloppy, get dressed after a bath and be presentable.

  • Add Meaning to Your Life
    Do volunteer work at the local orphanage or blind school, sign in for a charity fund raiser, take a class, participate in a seminar or project, connect with people and make new friends. Stop thinking about food and live.

  • Give In
    Once in a while you may give in to satisfy your craving for the sinful black forest cake or an ice cream sundae. That way you will feel contented and satisfied and can then concentrate on other things.

  • Prevent Relapse
    Once you have been able to control emotional eating, make sure it dosnt relapse. Train yourself not to think about food when alone, stressed or bored. Take the help of family members and friends if necessary. Eating is a great way to procrastinate, so beware of that habit. Some foods like chocolates have addictive qualities and are believed to relieve anxiety.

Thus once you can zero in on what makes you binge, you can definitely, with a little bit of will power, control your cravings and divert your mind to happier and healthier alternatives.

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More by :  Dr. Anjana Maitra

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