Life is an emotional roller-coaster, and not every turn is what we want it to be. But using food as a way to cope with emotions isn’t the best thing to do. Whether you’ve weight loss goals or not!
But this is easier said than done. I know this because I have been there. The good news is I have found a way to control it. And if I can do it, you can do it too.
In this article, I will explain the causes of emotional eating and the science behind it. I will also break down all the triggers and solutions in a practical way so you can start using them by the time you finish reading this article.
To begin, we first need to understand what emotional eating is.
What is emotional eating and the emotional eating cycle?
Emotional eating is trying to find comfort in food. It is when you use eating to deal with your emotions. Emotional eating occasionally is not harmful, but it’s a problem when this becomes a habit.
Emotional eating is a vicious cycle for many of us, especially under stressful circumstances.
When we face extreme stress, we eat to feel better. But unfortunately, the positive feeling is short-lived as we feel guilty for eating unwanted calories. This guilt and all the other stress make us sad and lead to another emotional eating episode.
The guilt of emotional eating is often extreme since we consume foods high in sugars and fats [1,2]. But emotional hunger (often referred to as head hunger) is not the same as physical hunger…
What is head hunger, and how is it different from physical hunger?
Head hunger is when an emotion triggers your hunger. For example, it can be to relieve stress or anger. Or to even comfort or reward yourself. In contrast, physical hunger is when your body actually needs energy. It is associated with signs like a growling stomach, headache, dizziness, fatigue, etc.
You should be aware of some clear differences between head hunger and physical hunger.
|Head (Emotional) Hunger||Physical Hunger|
|Comes all of a sudden and has no connection with your last meal||Comes 2-3 hours after your previous meal and grows gradually|
|Is associated with an emotion||Is due to the body’s need for energy|
|Craving a particular kind of food||Not very picky about the food|
|Desire to eat immediately||Can wait a little to eat|
|Is absent-minded eating||Can make conscious food choices|
|Can very easily end up overeating||Usual only eat till you are satisfied / comfortably full|
|Followed by guilt or shame||Followed by satisfaction|
But do hormones play a role in emotional or stress eating?
It is not only our emotions that make us eat more in stressful situations. Hormones have a role to play in this too.
Our body releases cortisol as a response to stress. This cortisol stimulates appetite , making us eat more of the super palatable foods [4,5], and is also linked to obesity .
Other hormones like insulin and ghrelin  also have a role to play in increasing food cravings that cause us to overeat.
What are the triggers for head hunger and scenarios to identify them?
Head hunger can have various triggers. Understanding these will help us deal with them more efficiently.
1. Dealing with negative emotions like stress and anger
This is when we use food to deal with or avoid negative emotions like stress, sadness, and anger. Food is often the easiest way to find comfort and also doubles as a distraction. This makes negative emotions one of the biggest triggers of emotional eating.
Boredom, although not highly negative as an emotion, can also trigger emotional eating.
Some real-life examples:
- An argument with your partner or best friend
- Too much work pressure or a very annoying boss pushing on a deadline
- Worried about parent’s health or home EMIs
- Having negative body image and self-doubt
2. Rewarding yourself with food (positive emotions)
Most of us turn to food for celebration. We have grown up seeing this in our family and the world around us.
Some real-life examples:
- Got a promotion at work, and you decided to have a lavish dinner with your friends
- Rewarding yourself with a piece of cake for completing the boring online training
- Even simply catching up with your closest friends is almost always over ‘drinks or dinner’
3. Fear of missing out (FOMO)
This is when you are tempted to eat because you fear missing out on that particular food. Sometimes you aren’t even actively thinking about it. It’s in the moment.
Some real-life examples:
- When a colleague gets fancy ‘local chocolates’ from their exotic holiday
- The cupcakes at the office for someone’s birthday celebration
Personal Anecdote: I can never stop having just one chocolate or a small piece of cake. I eat a lot more than I should, so I stay away altogether. I tell myself, “the cake shop isn’t going anywhere. If I really want to eat a cake, I can always buy myself one”. Don’t eat it just because it’s there in front of you.
4. Self-deprivation with food
This can happen when you restrict yourself from the food you love for too long. It’s especially common when you decide to lose weight. Losing weight means having a long list of things you need to steer clear of. So, self-control jumps out of the window when such a forbidden item is placed in front of you.
Some real-life examples:
You’re at a social gathering, and a croissant tempts you. All you can think of is getting your hands on it. The funny thing is that it’s not even your favorite food.
Personal Anecdote: Since I have been dieting all my adult life, I know this one too well. The example I mentioned above is me in real life. I found the solution to this by sourcing a ton of healthy food options so I don’t feel deprived of ‘good or tasty food’.
How can an emotional eater lose weight?
Losing weight can sometimes feel like being at war with yourself. And when emotions get involved it’s like the ‘Great war’ with the white walkers – completely out of control! Below are a few ways by which you can control head hunger, although this requires a lot of will power and practice.
1. Know the difference
It’s crucial to differentiate between physical and head hunger because only then will you be able to take any countermeasures. Sometimes head hunger can be so overpowering that we mistake it for physical hunger, and sometimes they both can co-exist. Thus, ask yourself these questions before you decide to eat:
- When was the last time you ate?
- Are you craving something in particular, or are open to healthy options?
- Can you wait a little to eat, or you need to eat something immediately?
- Do you feel a strong emotion at that moment or have physical signs of hunger?
2. Deal with the emotion
As we know, emotional eating is often associated with negative emotions. So first, try to identify the emotion that is bothering you. This could be stress, anger, or sometimes loneliness. Then, work towards addressing the problem that is giving rise to this emotion.
This is the long-term solution you should focus on. It can take time to resolve, but it will be well worth the effort.
Remember: Don’t indulge in food when hunger’s not the mood.
3. Distract yourself
Distraction is a great tool to use while you are trying to address the actual emotion. When your mind gets busy somewhere else, your desire to eat will reduce considerable.
Here are a few activities you can do to get busy:
- Take a walk, go for a run
- Call a friend or a family member
- Play with your dog
- Engage in a hobby
- Do your home chores
4. Learn to say ‘No’
Say ‘No’ to food when appropriate. No is a very powerful word, especially in this context, and can play a huge role in helping you achieve your weight loss goal.
Walk away from the situation if you have the option. This could be for the zillions of cakes that are cut in the office. Free cake sounds great, but it isn’t going to help you in any way!
5. Think volume when it comes to food
Then there are times when you won’t be able to walk away or resist eating. This is when you need to think about the portion size. Get a small serving and wait for some time before getting the next one. This will give you enough time to process your emotions and make a rational food choice.
6. Don’t restrict yourself
Be open to eating all foods, but ensure that this is your conscious decision and not an impulsive binge. Keeping track of your calories is crucial when following this concept, as it ensures you progress along your fitness journey.
Let’s say, you love KitKat. So, get the smallest available version every once in a while. Depriving yourself for long periods of time will lead you to binge eat later.
7. Practice mindful eating
Practicing mindful eating is a great way to get more conscious about your food choices. This is when you are fully aware of the foods you consume and not mindlessly eat while doing mundane activities like watching TV or working.
Mindful eating requires patience and commitment. We found an in-depth guide on everything to know about mindful eating.
8. Keep the temptation away
Certain food items are difficult to resist. This may vary from person to person, but we all have a chink in our armor. So, don’t stock these up! Not at home, not in the office. Sometimes, the effort to go buy an item can make you want that thing lesser. So, keep the temptation as far away as possible and keep a healthy snack handy.
9. Remind yourself of your goal
You are trying this hard and putting in so much effort for a reason. Remind yourself of this very reason. Food might uplift your mood temporarily, but the fitness goal that you have set for yourself is far more significant. Focus on your ‘Why’, and your desire to eat won’t be that strong anymore.
10. Forgive yourself and try again
We all try, and we all fail. The point is not to give up.
You could have a bad day or a bad week. Please don’t be too hard on yourself and make it worse. Just forgive yourself and try again. You have tomorrow to see success.
What are the risks of emotional eating?
Controlling your emotions around food can be tough, especially under stressful or sad circumstances. A few can manage it, and others can’t. And this can lead to eating disorders like binge eating. Many factors come into play here, like mental health, family history, emotional support system, etc. Please get in touch with a medical health professional in such situations.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be considered medical advice. Please consult a medical health professional to access and address the situation correctly.