Are Your Emotions Telling You When and How Much to Eat?

Reviewed Mar 17, 2016

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Summary

Break emotional eating habits:

  • Listen to your body.
  • Eat mindfully.
  • Make healthy choices, deliberately.

When we eat to nourish our bodies, we are following healthy eating practices. But when we eat or do not eat depending on our moods or emotions, our health may be impacted. 

Powerful feelings often propel us into action. But they also can stop us in our tracks, if we let them.

What is emotional eating?

We have all been there: Your stomach ties up in knots thinking about a relationship, so you miss a meal or two. Or, you are so thrilled at good news that you give yourself treats day after day, to celebrate.

Emotional eating has nothing to do with making decisions to lose or gain weight, or with liking or disliking food.

It happens when our feelings interfere with our normal eating habits. We eat too much or too little, and not because we are dieting. We might put on a few pounds or lose some, but not because we are trying. What we eat or do not eat has become an extension of our sadness or our need to soothe an emotional wound.  

How we let emotions rule

We tie food to comfort in our very first moments of life. A baby knows instinctively to cry when something bothers him. And, at the moment his caregiver comforts him by filling his belly, he makes the food-mood connection.

Fast-forward 30 years, and you may find an adult seeking comfort in food when she is down, or losing interest in food when she is bubbling over or stressed. The on/off button to her appetite rests on her emotional state.

No matter what brings on the feeling, she needs to calm herself by way of eating or not eating in moments of emotional discomfort. She may not realize it, but she cannot tell the difference between emotional and physical discomfort.

How do I know if my hunger or lack of appetite is real?

Listen to your body. Your stomach will tell you when it needs food or has had enough. Be patient and pay attention.

Everyone reacts to stress differently. Some people eat too much; others lose their appetite under the same stressful conditions. Worry, grief or loss, relationship problems, and depression can interfere with our ability to recognize our body’s needs.

Ask yourself, am I physically hungry? If so, eat. If not, wait to eat a real meal. Physical hunger comes on gradually. When your body needs food, it will let you know.

Emotional distress, on the other hand, sets off intense, sudden cravings, often for carbohydrates, sweet or salty foods. When emotions rule, we cannot wait for a real meal. We want ice cream and we want it now.

Sometimes we feel numb or emotionally empty and mistake that for hunger. Other times we turn to food out of habit. Something looks or sounds good, so we go for it.

“You actually may hunger for a connection with other people, a more satisfying relationship or better job,” explains Judith Matz, LCSW, an author and psychotherapist who specializes in helping people with eating problems. “Food takes care of physical hunger, but does not satisfy us, emotionally.

“Some people describe losing their appetite when feeling emotions ranging from sadness to stress to happiness. If this feeling quickly passes, there's no need for concern. However, your body needs nourishment throughout the day, so it's important to eat enough to keep up your energy. If you go for long periods of time without eating—or if your eating patterns become erratic—this can be a sign of a more serious problem, such as depression or an eating disorder. Seek help if you are unable to resume eating in a consistent manner or begin to experience weight loss.”

How to break an emotional eating habit

  • Admit that your emotions are pushing you to do something you do not need or want to do. Be glad you have learned to recognize these feelings.
  • Do not try to stop or change your feelings, just change the way you handle them. You are dealing with a calming problem, not a moral issue. Through understanding, you will find the root of your discomfort.
  • Talk to a friend, relative, or counselor about it.
  • Talk to yourself. Say, something must be bothering me, and I look forward to the day when I do not have to worry about it anymore.
  • Do not get mad at yourself or try to force yourself to eat or stop eating. You might make the situation worse.
  • Build a strong support structure around friends, family, hobbies, and interests.
  • Fight the urge to eat when you do not need to. Take a nap or a walk or read a magazine. 
  • Meditate or practice other forms of mindfulness.
  • Make a list of things that soothe you when you are bothered, such as music or picturing yourself in a peaceful place.
  • Do something physical—practice the piano, work on a project or write a letter—to distract yourself from discomfort.
  • If you are eating too much, get rid of snacks and comfort food.
  • Eat a well-balanced mixture of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and lean protein such as meat, poultry, and fish. Variety is good.  
  • If emotions prevent you from eating, keep small amounts of nutritious food handy for snacks, including cheese, nuts, whole-grain bread, or cereal, or raw vegetables. 
  • Never shop for food when you are angry or blue. You may make poor choices.
  • Use breaks to do something rejuvenating. Walk, talk to a friend, or meditate.
  • Keep a food journal. This may help you discover what is bothering you. Consider using the HALT method in your journaling, noting when you eat if you are:
    • Hungry—physically or emotionally
    • Angry
    • Lonely or bored
    • Tired

Most emotional eating is temporary. Once you admit that you have been too distracted by emotions to pay attention to your nutritional needs, the problem will begin to correct itself. Focus on finding out what is bothering you, and your eating problem should go away on its own. If it does not go back to normal in a few weeks, seek professional help.

Resources

The National Eating Disorders Helpline
(800) 931-2237
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler, M.D. Rodale, 2009.

Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Naht Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. HarperCollins, 2010.

By Paula Hartman Cohen
Source: Judith Matz, MSW, LCSW, author and therapist specializing in treating people with eating problems and weight issues, Skokie, IL

Summary

Break emotional eating habits:

  • Listen to your body.
  • Eat mindfully.
  • Make healthy choices, deliberately.

When we eat to nourish our bodies, we are following healthy eating practices. But when we eat or do not eat depending on our moods or emotions, our health may be impacted. 

Powerful feelings often propel us into action. But they also can stop us in our tracks, if we let them.

What is emotional eating?

We have all been there: Your stomach ties up in knots thinking about a relationship, so you miss a meal or two. Or, you are so thrilled at good news that you give yourself treats day after day, to celebrate.

Emotional eating has nothing to do with making decisions to lose or gain weight, or with liking or disliking food.

It happens when our feelings interfere with our normal eating habits. We eat too much or too little, and not because we are dieting. We might put on a few pounds or lose some, but not because we are trying. What we eat or do not eat has become an extension of our sadness or our need to soothe an emotional wound.  

How we let emotions rule

We tie food to comfort in our very first moments of life. A baby knows instinctively to cry when something bothers him. And, at the moment his caregiver comforts him by filling his belly, he makes the food-mood connection.

Fast-forward 30 years, and you may find an adult seeking comfort in food when she is down, or losing interest in food when she is bubbling over or stressed. The on/off button to her appetite rests on her emotional state.

No matter what brings on the feeling, she needs to calm herself by way of eating or not eating in moments of emotional discomfort. She may not realize it, but she cannot tell the difference between emotional and physical discomfort.

How do I know if my hunger or lack of appetite is real?

Listen to your body. Your stomach will tell you when it needs food or has had enough. Be patient and pay attention.

Everyone reacts to stress differently. Some people eat too much; others lose their appetite under the same stressful conditions. Worry, grief or loss, relationship problems, and depression can interfere with our ability to recognize our body’s needs.

Ask yourself, am I physically hungry? If so, eat. If not, wait to eat a real meal. Physical hunger comes on gradually. When your body needs food, it will let you know.

Emotional distress, on the other hand, sets off intense, sudden cravings, often for carbohydrates, sweet or salty foods. When emotions rule, we cannot wait for a real meal. We want ice cream and we want it now.

Sometimes we feel numb or emotionally empty and mistake that for hunger. Other times we turn to food out of habit. Something looks or sounds good, so we go for it.

“You actually may hunger for a connection with other people, a more satisfying relationship or better job,” explains Judith Matz, LCSW, an author and psychotherapist who specializes in helping people with eating problems. “Food takes care of physical hunger, but does not satisfy us, emotionally.

“Some people describe losing their appetite when feeling emotions ranging from sadness to stress to happiness. If this feeling quickly passes, there's no need for concern. However, your body needs nourishment throughout the day, so it's important to eat enough to keep up your energy. If you go for long periods of time without eating—or if your eating patterns become erratic—this can be a sign of a more serious problem, such as depression or an eating disorder. Seek help if you are unable to resume eating in a consistent manner or begin to experience weight loss.”

How to break an emotional eating habit

  • Admit that your emotions are pushing you to do something you do not need or want to do. Be glad you have learned to recognize these feelings.
  • Do not try to stop or change your feelings, just change the way you handle them. You are dealing with a calming problem, not a moral issue. Through understanding, you will find the root of your discomfort.
  • Talk to a friend, relative, or counselor about it.
  • Talk to yourself. Say, something must be bothering me, and I look forward to the day when I do not have to worry about it anymore.
  • Do not get mad at yourself or try to force yourself to eat or stop eating. You might make the situation worse.
  • Build a strong support structure around friends, family, hobbies, and interests.
  • Fight the urge to eat when you do not need to. Take a nap or a walk or read a magazine. 
  • Meditate or practice other forms of mindfulness.
  • Make a list of things that soothe you when you are bothered, such as music or picturing yourself in a peaceful place.
  • Do something physical—practice the piano, work on a project or write a letter—to distract yourself from discomfort.
  • If you are eating too much, get rid of snacks and comfort food.
  • Eat a well-balanced mixture of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and lean protein such as meat, poultry, and fish. Variety is good.  
  • If emotions prevent you from eating, keep small amounts of nutritious food handy for snacks, including cheese, nuts, whole-grain bread, or cereal, or raw vegetables. 
  • Never shop for food when you are angry or blue. You may make poor choices.
  • Use breaks to do something rejuvenating. Walk, talk to a friend, or meditate.
  • Keep a food journal. This may help you discover what is bothering you. Consider using the HALT method in your journaling, noting when you eat if you are:
    • Hungry—physically or emotionally
    • Angry
    • Lonely or bored
    • Tired

Most emotional eating is temporary. Once you admit that you have been too distracted by emotions to pay attention to your nutritional needs, the problem will begin to correct itself. Focus on finding out what is bothering you, and your eating problem should go away on its own. If it does not go back to normal in a few weeks, seek professional help.

Resources

The National Eating Disorders Helpline
(800) 931-2237
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler, M.D. Rodale, 2009.

Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Naht Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. HarperCollins, 2010.

By Paula Hartman Cohen
Source: Judith Matz, MSW, LCSW, author and therapist specializing in treating people with eating problems and weight issues, Skokie, IL

Summary

Break emotional eating habits:

  • Listen to your body.
  • Eat mindfully.
  • Make healthy choices, deliberately.

When we eat to nourish our bodies, we are following healthy eating practices. But when we eat or do not eat depending on our moods or emotions, our health may be impacted. 

Powerful feelings often propel us into action. But they also can stop us in our tracks, if we let them.

What is emotional eating?

We have all been there: Your stomach ties up in knots thinking about a relationship, so you miss a meal or two. Or, you are so thrilled at good news that you give yourself treats day after day, to celebrate.

Emotional eating has nothing to do with making decisions to lose or gain weight, or with liking or disliking food.

It happens when our feelings interfere with our normal eating habits. We eat too much or too little, and not because we are dieting. We might put on a few pounds or lose some, but not because we are trying. What we eat or do not eat has become an extension of our sadness or our need to soothe an emotional wound.  

How we let emotions rule

We tie food to comfort in our very first moments of life. A baby knows instinctively to cry when something bothers him. And, at the moment his caregiver comforts him by filling his belly, he makes the food-mood connection.

Fast-forward 30 years, and you may find an adult seeking comfort in food when she is down, or losing interest in food when she is bubbling over or stressed. The on/off button to her appetite rests on her emotional state.

No matter what brings on the feeling, she needs to calm herself by way of eating or not eating in moments of emotional discomfort. She may not realize it, but she cannot tell the difference between emotional and physical discomfort.

How do I know if my hunger or lack of appetite is real?

Listen to your body. Your stomach will tell you when it needs food or has had enough. Be patient and pay attention.

Everyone reacts to stress differently. Some people eat too much; others lose their appetite under the same stressful conditions. Worry, grief or loss, relationship problems, and depression can interfere with our ability to recognize our body’s needs.

Ask yourself, am I physically hungry? If so, eat. If not, wait to eat a real meal. Physical hunger comes on gradually. When your body needs food, it will let you know.

Emotional distress, on the other hand, sets off intense, sudden cravings, often for carbohydrates, sweet or salty foods. When emotions rule, we cannot wait for a real meal. We want ice cream and we want it now.

Sometimes we feel numb or emotionally empty and mistake that for hunger. Other times we turn to food out of habit. Something looks or sounds good, so we go for it.

“You actually may hunger for a connection with other people, a more satisfying relationship or better job,” explains Judith Matz, LCSW, an author and psychotherapist who specializes in helping people with eating problems. “Food takes care of physical hunger, but does not satisfy us, emotionally.

“Some people describe losing their appetite when feeling emotions ranging from sadness to stress to happiness. If this feeling quickly passes, there's no need for concern. However, your body needs nourishment throughout the day, so it's important to eat enough to keep up your energy. If you go for long periods of time without eating—or if your eating patterns become erratic—this can be a sign of a more serious problem, such as depression or an eating disorder. Seek help if you are unable to resume eating in a consistent manner or begin to experience weight loss.”

How to break an emotional eating habit

  • Admit that your emotions are pushing you to do something you do not need or want to do. Be glad you have learned to recognize these feelings.
  • Do not try to stop or change your feelings, just change the way you handle them. You are dealing with a calming problem, not a moral issue. Through understanding, you will find the root of your discomfort.
  • Talk to a friend, relative, or counselor about it.
  • Talk to yourself. Say, something must be bothering me, and I look forward to the day when I do not have to worry about it anymore.
  • Do not get mad at yourself or try to force yourself to eat or stop eating. You might make the situation worse.
  • Build a strong support structure around friends, family, hobbies, and interests.
  • Fight the urge to eat when you do not need to. Take a nap or a walk or read a magazine. 
  • Meditate or practice other forms of mindfulness.
  • Make a list of things that soothe you when you are bothered, such as music or picturing yourself in a peaceful place.
  • Do something physical—practice the piano, work on a project or write a letter—to distract yourself from discomfort.
  • If you are eating too much, get rid of snacks and comfort food.
  • Eat a well-balanced mixture of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and lean protein such as meat, poultry, and fish. Variety is good.  
  • If emotions prevent you from eating, keep small amounts of nutritious food handy for snacks, including cheese, nuts, whole-grain bread, or cereal, or raw vegetables. 
  • Never shop for food when you are angry or blue. You may make poor choices.
  • Use breaks to do something rejuvenating. Walk, talk to a friend, or meditate.
  • Keep a food journal. This may help you discover what is bothering you. Consider using the HALT method in your journaling, noting when you eat if you are:
    • Hungry—physically or emotionally
    • Angry
    • Lonely or bored
    • Tired

Most emotional eating is temporary. Once you admit that you have been too distracted by emotions to pay attention to your nutritional needs, the problem will begin to correct itself. Focus on finding out what is bothering you, and your eating problem should go away on its own. If it does not go back to normal in a few weeks, seek professional help.

Resources

The National Eating Disorders Helpline
(800) 931-2237
www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler, M.D. Rodale, 2009.

Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Naht Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. HarperCollins, 2010.

By Paula Hartman Cohen
Source: Judith Matz, MSW, LCSW, author and therapist specializing in treating people with eating problems and weight issues, Skokie, IL

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