Emotional eating: How emotions influence your eating behavior

Eating out of boredom, frustration, or stress – sound familiar? But instead of reaching for an apple or a few berries, you go for a pack of gummy bears, a bar of chocolate, or pizza. If you tend to eat your feelings, you may be an Emotional Eater. 

To learn where emotional eating comes from, what effects it has on you and your body, and how you can stop it, we spoke with Antonia, mental and emotional transformation expert and founder of Deseinyourlife.

Antonia Daseinyourlife Emotional Eating

What is emotional eating in psychology?

Emotional eating is a widespread phenomenon nowadays, which, simply put, is a reaction to negative emotions. Here, the food acts as compensation or a substitute for your negative emotions such as stress, boredom, or frustration.

Am I an emotional eater?

Emotional Eater

Our expert Antonia describes a feeling you may know: You work hard at sports, eat healthy during the week, drink little alcohol, and are ambitious and disciplined, but when it comes to sweets, you can’t manage to say no. You can’t stop eating delicious food, even when you’re full. On bad days, you have a guilty conscience. Another indication could be that your thoughts regularly revolve around food. 

Although emotional eating may seem harmless on a smaller scale, it can significantly impact your physical and mental health. Therefore, you must identify and minimize or even eliminate your reason for emotional eating.

What are typical triggers for emotional eating?

Emotional Eating Stress

Previous studies on emotional eating have focused primarily on negative emotional arousal, such as stress, as a trigger for overeating. They have shown that higher stress levels are associated with higher food consumption. Additionally, higher stress levels can cause your hunger and satiety signals to become improperly regulated. Simply put, your body can no longer distinguish physical hunger from emotional hunger. “The latter needs real relaxation and tries to compensate for stress by eating,” says expert Antonia. “If you don’t listen to your needs, they make themselves heard. So it’s important to give yourself that space to listen to your body’s needs.”

Here’s the first tip from Antonia: 

If you notice that you’re having a bit of a slump during the day, try to find a way to re-energize without reaching for food out of cravings. For example, you could take a short nap or do a short breathing exercise at work. Sometimes a good conversation with friends or colleagues can also help. It is essential to do it regularly to ‘overwrite’ your unwanted habits.

Yoga

Antonia describes another cause: You experience events from birth that you evaluate and interpret yourself. These events form different beliefs, thought patterns, and also your value compass. Perhaps you have already caught yourself saying: “As a reward after sport, I treat myself to some sweets.” Each of us has developed specific compensatory mechanisms or relationship patterns. These are also okay to a small extent. However, it would help if you tried to be clear about whether it was a conscious decision or an emotion that drove you to emotional eating, for example.

How can I identify my triggers?

“The more negative feelings you experience, the more intensely your mind develops strategies to compensate for those negative feelings,” Antonia says. “This is where self-reflection and learning emotional literacy can be helpful.” 

Step one: recognize your internal triggers

Look for the discomfort that precedes an emotional eating behavior and focus on that. What areas in your life fill you up? What things cause negative emotions, and how do you feel before an eating episode? Start becoming aware of what emotions play a role in your eating behavior and get a better sense of what physical and emotional hunger are.

Step two: Minimize your external triggers

External triggers are signals in your environment that tell you what to do next. These can be a general time for lunch even though you’re not hungry, or going out for cake with your colleagues because you’re afraid of missing out.

To what extent is emotional eating taking a toll on my mental health?

Emotional Eating

Just as with all negative habits, emotional eating has consequences. “Depending on how excessive the habit is, the more drastic the effects,” Antonia says. When you can’t distinguish emotional hunger from real physical hunger, you’re likely to eat more than you need. As a result, more calories lead to a calorie surplus, which leads to weight gain. The risks of being overweight are well known. They include diabetes, high blood pressure, inability to exercise, and cardiovascular disease. It’s no different on the emotional level. If you are ‘unhealthy’ emotionally and mentally, it manifests itself again on a physical level. Brain research has confirmed that negative thoughts greatly influence our feelings and vice versa. So if you’re angry about everything and always thinking darkly, you’ll feel bad too. 

Stop emotional eating – this is how you do it sustainably

A healthy lifestyle helps you be more balanced. A full day with a sense of achievement, for example, in sports, at work, or in your relationship, also helps prevent boredom or frustration that you want to compensate for in the first place. Studies show that programs that promote exercise, mindful eating, emotion regulation, and positive body image can positively affect Emotional Eaters. So, once again, we’ve listed all the essential activities to stop emotional eating. 

1. Get physically active

Urban Sports Club

Regular physical activity has been shown to protect against weight gain and reduce depression and other forms of negative emotions that can lead to emotional eating. A healthy lifestyle helps you be more balanced. Your best bet is to find a sport you enjoy. For example, you can choose from over 50 sports at Urban Sports Club.

2. Regulate your food intake

Techniques such as mindful eating can help you pay more attention to your inner hunger and satiety signals, so you know when and how much to eat. Our expert Antonia also confirms: “Mindful Eating is a method that brings more mindfulness into your everyday life. Not only to get emotional eating under control, but also to better sense your body’s needs.” Because mindful eating isn’t just about eating slowly, it’s about keeping your focus and intention on what you’re doing: eating. This quality will also help you reduce stress in other ways and become less hectic.

Mindful Eating

3. Build emotional and mental sovereignty

Mental sovereignty helps you better regulate your emotions, building healthier mechanisms for coping with negative emotions. You can support the development of this sovereignty with sometimes straightforward tools and integrate them into your everyday life. Antonia has explained three of them for us in more detail:  

  1. Leaves on the brook: Imagine you are sitting next to a calm creek and watching leaves flowing down the stream. Place your worries and fears on these leaves and let the water carry them away.
  2. The ten-minute rule: Wait ten minutes before giving in to your distraction. Example: If you are highly stressed and come home craving sweets, set an alarm clock and try to control impulses better. After the ten minutes, re-evaluate if you want the candy or if it was just a craving after the stressful day.
  3. Impulse surfing: When you feel a craving for distraction, direct your attention to it. When we perceive an urge for food, we often try to suppress it. However, this only makes it stronger. Impulse surfing says we don’t do any of that. We just perceive the emotion and surf along on the wave briefly. This method typically dissolves the feeling without us pushing it away or pursuing it.

About Antonia

Antonia

Antonia (29), founder of Deseinyourlife and the coaching program UNIQUE LOOP, lives in Austria and has been a coach for three and a half years. She describes herself as a change enthusiast and expert in energetic and mental transformations. Her coaching tools include content from NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), hypnosis, positive psychology, and her trainer’s education in character studies and laws of consciousness.

Instagram, [email protected]

References

Bennett, J., Greene, G., & Schwartz-Barcott, D. (2013). Perceptions of emotional eating behavior. A qualitative study of college students. Appetite, 60, 187–192.

Frayn, M., Livshits, S., & Knäuper, B. (2018). Emotional eating and weight regulation: a qualitative study of compensatory behaviors and concerns. Journal of eating disorders, 6, 23. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-018-0210-6

Ganley, R. M. (1989). Emotion and eating in obesity: A review of the literature. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 8, 343–361.

Greeno, C. G., & Wing, R. R. (1994). Stress-induced eating. Psychological Bulletin, 15, 444–464.

Kaplan, H. I., & Kaplan, H. S. (1957). The psychosomatic concept of obesity. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 125, 181–201.

Ouwens, M., van Strien, T., & van Leeuwe, J. (2009). Possible pathways between depression, emotional and external eating. A structural equation model. Appetite, 53, 245–248.

Tan, Cin Cin & Chow, Chong Man. (2014). Stress and emotional eating: The mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personality and Individual Differences. 66. 1–4. 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.033. 

Torres, S., & Nowson, C. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition, 23, 887–894.

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