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Emotional Eating: Unstuffing Our Faces & Emotions

Food is a wonderful thing! There are so many tastes, so many varieties, and quite frankly, we can’t live without it. We typically eat to satisfy hunger, to provide the proper nutrition and sustenance needed to get through our day.

However, we sometimes eat to relieve stress or reward ourselves.

While this behavior is not necessarily problematic or harmful when done in moderation, we have to be careful not to cross the line. It’s perfectly acceptable to reward ourselves with a special treat, or to indulge in something savory after a hard day.

It’s when this type of eating becomes a coping mechanism that we find ourselves being emotional eaters.

Our first response to emotions should not be to indulge in food. Emotional eating is dangerous for your physical and emotional well-being. Emotional eating doesn’t fix our problems. In fact, it often makes us feel worse. It can leave us with feelings of guilt, shame, or depression.

Two common reasons for emotional eating include stress and avoidance of negative emotions. Stress increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol make us crave foods that provide a “feel good feeling” and energy. This often includes foods high in fat and carbohydrates.

We can also stuff our faces while stuffing our emotions. Food is a distraction that allows us to avoid feeling and examining negative emotions. While it feels good in the moment, the gratification is only temporary.

To overcome emotional eating one must first recognize the differences between real hunger and emotional hunger. Here are some examples:

  • Physical hunger stops when you feel full. Emotional hunger goes unsatisfied well after being physically full.
  • Physical hunger doesn’t make you feel guilty because you eat to satisfy what your body needs. Emotional hunger triggers negative emotions related to eating.
  • Physical hunger is gradual. Emotional hunger is sudden, often a response to an emotion.
  • Physical hunger can be satisfied with a variety of foods. Emotional hunger craves specific foods and specific types of food.

If you are an emotional eater, the good news is that it doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. There are several tips for putting a stop to emotional eating and improving your overall well-being.

  • Get in tune with your emotions.Instead of running from your emotions, learn to face them head on. Allow yourself to become comfortable with all of your emotions, even the negative ones. The more comfortable you become with facing emotions, the less likely you are to try to avoid them with chocolate chip cookies or savory mac and cheese.
  • Distract yourself.When you find yourself thinking about what food would make you feel better, distract yourself by thinking about something else. You may find that getting up and taking a walk does the trick, or simply saying to yourself “I will not think about food” until the craving passes.
  • Feed your feelings without food.It is important to find healthier ways to deal with your feelings. Treat yourself to something nice like a hot bath or shower, or a dimly lit room and relaxation. If you’re feeling down, reach out to a friend instead of peanut butter and if you’re bored find something you enjoy doing and get to it.
  • Take a break when cravings take a hit.When the craving hits, give yourself time to allow it to pass. I find the “one minute at a time” technique to be helpful. Decide how long you believe it will take your craving to pass and just don’t give in for one minute at a time.
  • Exercise.Exercising releases all those feel-good endorphins. If you feel like running to the fridge after a very stressful day, opt for a run around the block instead. Your mind and body will thank you later.
  • Get healthier.Healthy lifestyle habits will improve your physical and emotional well-being. Reduce stress in as many ways as you can. Make time for relaxation and recreation, connect with others, eat a balanced diet, and get plenty of sleep. Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle will reduce your triggers for emotional eating.
Emotional Eating: Unstuffing Our Faces & Emotions

Donna M. White, LPCI, CACP

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APA Reference
White, D. (2018). Emotional Eating: Unstuffing Our Faces & Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Sep 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.