Understanding the Relationship Between Food and Emotions

By ErinRose Baldry

Understanding the Relationship Between Food and Emotions

Eating food and enjoying it is extremely important for our physical and mental wellbeing. We require nutrient dense meals to satisfy physical hunger and to nourish our bodies. Yet it feels almost culturally mainstream to turn to food for emotional reasons of comfort, stress relief, or to reward ourselves. When we do so, we tend to reach for unhealthy options such as junk food or sweets. While it may seem that emotional eating makes you feel better about yourself, this does not fix emotional problems. In fact, it often makes people feel worse. Not only does the original emotional issue remain, you may also be left feeling guilty for overeating. 

Does food make us feel good? 

Negative feelings can result in a sense of emptiness or an emotional void. Physiologically, food is perceived to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary satisfaction. Emotional eating on occasion is fairly common and using food as a pick-me-up, reward, or way to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing once in a while. It is however cause for concern when emotional eating occurs on a regular and frequent basis and is your primary emotional coping mechanism. Unhealthy issues arise if the desire to fill emotional needs with food is taking over or replacing health eating habits. Consider some of these helpful pointers on how to make positive lifestyle adjustments with your relationship with food. 

Am I an emotional eater?

Physical and emotional hunger can be confused with one another, but there are key differences between the two. Observe how and when your hunger starts, as well as how you feel after eating. The questions below can help identify whether you are a an emotional eater:

  • Do you tend to eat more when you’re stressed?
  • Do you find yourself eating even if you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
  • Do you eat to feel better?
  • Do you regularly reward yourself with food?
  • Does food make you feel safe? 
  • Do you feel out of control around food?

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, hitting you instantly and it feels overwhelming and urgent. Whereas physical hunger builds more gradually and the desire to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you have not eaten anything in a very long time). A craving for a specific food type is more likely emotional hunger, eg sugary snacks, candy, chocolate, pizza, fries etc. When you are truly physically hungry, almost anything sounds appetizing, including the healthy stuff. 

Emotional hunger often turns into mindless eating. Before realize it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire tub of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. If you eat in response to physical hunger, you are typically more aware of what you are doing and how much you are eating. Emotional hunger does not feel satisfied once you are physically full. Whereas physical hunger does not need to be satisfied to the point of feeling stuffed, and you feel satisfied when your stomach is full.

Emotional hunger does not originate in your stomach. Unlike a grumbling belly or a pang in your stomach, you “feel” your hunger as a mental craving you can’t stop thinking about. It often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you are unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed, because you gave your body what it needed at the time. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.

How to deal with emotional eating

Find other ways to cope with stress. By discovering another healthier way to cope with emotions, this is often the first step toward overcoming emotional eating. The solution is different for each individual. It could include writing in a journal, reading a book, doing a sport or activity, going for a walk, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day. It takes time to alter your perspective and habits, engage in various healthy forms of stress relief and experiment with a variety of activities to find what works for you.

How do alternate emotional coping mechanisms alter focus? 

Practice mindfulness. Try meditation, relaxation or breathing exercising in a quiet space, these are proven to contribute towards shifting perspectives and making healthier behavioral changes.

Write in a food diary. Maintaining a record of what you eat and when may help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. You can write notes in a notebook or use a nutrition tracking app. While it can be challenging, try to include everything you eat, however big or small and record the emotions you’re feeling in that moment. If you decide to seek medical help about your eating habits, your food diary can also be a valuable resource to share with your doctor.

Eat a healthy diet. Make sure you get enough varied nutrients and vitamins to fuel your body. If you eat well throughout the day, it tends to be easier to differentiate when you’re eating for the wrong reasons. Have healthy snacks and lots of water to avoid mindless eating. Remove junk food and other tempting high-fat, sweet or high calorie foods from your kitchen. Also avoid grocery shopping if you feel upset or hungry.

Pay attention to portion sizes. Measure out portions and choose small plates to help with portion control, these mindful eating habits will become second nature in time. When you finish a serving size, give yourself time before going back for a second and drink plenty of water in between. 

Seek support from loved ones. If you have feelings of isolation, sadness or anxiety, speak with a close friend or family to help boost your mood. There are also formal support groups that can help. Lastly, if you feel helpless or lost, seek guidance from a doctor for a referral to a counselor or coach who can help you identify the emotions at the route of your feelings of hunger. Emotional eating can lead to disordered eating, which can be very dangerous. Addressing the feelings behind the behavior is of paramount importance for long term health. Approach the process each day with a fresh start, this in turn leads to a better understanding of yourself, as well as the development of healthier eating habits and a more positive relationship with food.

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Orignially published on March 31, 2021, updated on March 31, 2021

Topic: Diabetes Management

ErinRose Baldry

About ErinRose Baldry

ErinRose Baldry is an ACE Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer. She integrates her knowledge in fitness, wellness, cooking and nutrition to offer dynamic, engaging, relevant information for her clients and in her writing. She provides effective, manageable guidance and tips for all populations who aim to be the best version of themselves both in health and fitness. In addition, she advocates for local charities and educates families on the importance of healthy eating, nutrition and exercise.