4 Signs of Emotional Eating and How to Deal with them

Uncovering the “signs of emotional eating” can be a journey of self-discovery. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion, each one revealing something new about our relationship with food and emotions.

Many of us have had moments of diving into a pint of ice cream after a stressful day. But when this becomes a habitual response, rather than an occasional indulgence, it’s time to take action.

Recognizing the signs of emotional eating is the first step in confronting and managing this common, yet often overlooked, coping strategy. Knowledge is power, and it can help you make healthier, more informed decisions about your eating habits.

This blog will illuminate the common signs of emotional eating and explain how to foster a healthier relationship with food.

Table of Contents

What is Emotional Eating?

Let’s start by understanding emotional eating and what it is. Emotional eating occurs when we turn to food for comfort, relief, or reward rather than to satisfy physical hunger.

So, if you reach for a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, or order a large pizza after a stressful day, those are possible signs of emotionally eating. 

The first step to reclaiming your relationship with food is recognizing when eating becomes a way of distracting, numbing, soothing, comforting, or rewarding yourself.

Emotional eating isn’t a sign that you lack willpower or that you’re a food addict. Instead, it’s a signal that something’s stuck. It’s a coping mechanism that ends up hurting us more than it helps. And, it’s possible to create lasting change 

Common Signs of Emotional Eating

Recognizing the signs of emotional eating is the first step toward cultivating a healthier relationship with food. So, what should you look for? 

1. Eating in Response to Feelings Rather than Hunger

One of the most telling signs of emotional eating is turning to food in response to emotions rather than physical hunger. This could be in response to stress, boredom, loneliness, or sadness.

If you notice an increase in your food consumption when dealing with these emotions, it may show that you’re emotionally eating. 

Again, this is not about control or willpower. Emotional eating is an attempt to resolve something internal, emotions or conflicts that are difficult to face or process. 

Or, it may be a way of calming down anxiety, especially when the food choices are heavy carbs, which have a sedative effect. Another reason is eating for energy, such as having chocolate or sugary foods when what’s needed is rest.

2. Feeling Out of Control Around Food

Another key sign of emotional eating is feeling out of control around food. You may feel that once you start eating, you can’t stop—even if you’re already feeling full. This lack of control can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, further propagating the cycle of emotional eating. 

This cycle of reaching out for comfort food in times of stress can develop into Binge Eating Disorder, which is characterized by compulsive overeating of large quantities of food in a short amount of time, followed by guilt and shame.

Understanding these triggers and redirecting responses towards healthier habits is critical for gaining control over emotional eating. 

3. Eating Alone or in Secret

Are you often eating alone or in secrecy? This is also a sign of emotional eating. People who emotionally eat may feel embarrassed about the amount of food they consume and hide their eating behaviors from others. 

If you hide your eating habits because you believe they aren’t socially acceptable or people might comment or judge you, that often leads to guilt and shame. Those reactions can then trigger more eating episodes as a way to cope. It can be a vicious cycle. 

Additionally, for some people, eating alone is a way of getting “me” time away from the intensity of a job and family demands. 

4. Feeling Guilty or Ashamed After Eating

Ideally, food ought to be one of the basic pleasures of life. But when it’s used as a coping strategy, it becomes both a best friend and a worst enemy. That’s why another common reaction to emotional eating is feeling guilt or shame. 

We feel guilty when we’ve done something we think we shouldn’t have done, or when we don’t do something we think we should do. Guilt sounds like, “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” 

Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about ourselves. Shame sounds like, “There’s something wrong with me for eating that. Why can’t I control myself?”

Any of these four signs of emotional eating are indications of an unhealthy relationship with food. Recognizing these signs of emotional eating is the first step toward creating lasting change. 

How to Deal with Signs of Emotional Eating

Once the signs of emotional eating are recognized, it’s time to take action and create a different relationship to food. So, let’s delve into the techniques: 

1. Create a New Relationship with Emotions

Emotional eating originates from difficulty handling emotions. This is the result of a culture that tells us it’s “weak” to have feelings and encourages having the “strength” to ignore them or push them down.

Instead, think of emotions as simply reactions to situations, rather than character flaws. Emotions communicate something about our experience and we must pay attention to them.

This could involve journaling, having effective therapy sessions, or even taking up a hobby that facilitates emotional expression, like writing, painting, or playing an instrument. 

2. Identify Emotional Triggers

People often think they are triggered by food but that is not true; they are triggered by some situation or emotion that causes them to turn to food for comfort or distraction. Think of it this way, food is a solution to the problem, not “the” problem. 

It’s not what you’re eating that is the problem, it’s what’s eating “at” you. Pay attention to patterns. Perhaps you eat when you are stressed, or lonely, or maybe it’s when you’re sad. Track the trigger emotions.

3. Turn The Inner Critic Into A Friend

If you say things like, “What’s wrong with me? I can’t believe I ate that. I have no willpower. I’m disgusting and I hate myself…

That’s your inner critic talking. Many times, people turn to food to escape their own mean voice. To silence the inner critic, be curious, not critical. Consider if you’re bingeing in response to hunger or deprivation. Check in with yourself about what is bothering you.

Then, talk to yourself like a friend. If your friend ate a ton of ice cream, you wouldn’t say, “How disgusting!”

You’d be nice and supportive. so be that way to yourself. Talk to yourself in a soothing, kind, tone. A warm tone is like a verbal hug.

4. Seek Professional Help

An experienced psychotherapist can facilitate the identification of emotional triggers causing this type of behavior.

Having identified these triggers, you can then work towards healthier strategies such as distraction, relaxation techniques, or replacement behaviors that do not involve food.

With consistent and effective therapy sessions from a professional, you can break free from the constraints and negative effects of emotional eating. 

Nutritionists can educate you on the effects of various foods on your physical health, mood and emotions. They can help plan balanced, healthy meals which can keep both your body and mind in good shape.

Moreover, it may be helpful to join a support group. They offer a platform where you can share your struggles and victories over emotional eating.

Knowing when to seek professional help and deciding to take that step is not only courageous but also empowering. It’s definitely a move in the right direction on your journey to overcoming emotional eating.

Final Thoughts

Understanding these signs of emotional eating is imperative in your journey to overcome emotional overeating. Professional help such as therapy, support groups, and resources such can provide the necessary guidance and support to break free from emotional eating.

Emotional eating can feel like an unbeatable cycle, but please understand that it’s a response to what’s going on internally. Identifying the triggers is the first step to breaking free.

And remember, you’re more than your eating habits – Emotional eating is a symptom, not your identity. If you recognize some of these signs in your relationship with food, consider reaching out for support and guidance. We’re here to help. 

Overcoming the onset of emotional eating needs more than sheer willpower. It takes a holistic view of your lifestyle, habits, and emotions to address them effectively.

While the journey might not be easy, the empowerment you’ll feel after understanding and taking control of the signs of emotional eating can be wonderfully liberating.

Remember, we’re all human, and everyone has their unique struggles – so be kind to yourself along the way. You’re stronger than you think!

Frequently Asked Questions

Understanding the signs of emotional eating is the first step towards transformation. Let’s clarify several commonly asked questions on the subject to help deepen your understanding and set you on the right path towards taking control. Navigate through these questions and equip yourself with knowledge that can change your relationship with food.

1. What triggers emotional eating?

 There can be many triggers for emotional eating. It could range from stress, anxiety, depression, or even from feelings of happiness and celebration. The key is pinpointing what emotions drive your overeating habits and addressing them effectively.

2. Is emotional eating a disorder?

While emotional eating itself isn’t classified as a disorder, it can result in unhealthy patterns such as binge eating disorder or Bulimia nervosa when left unresolved. Always consult a health professional if you’re concerned about your eating habits.

2. Is it possible to overcome emotional eating on my own, or do I need professional help?

 While it’s possible to manage emotional eating on your own by implementing healthier coping strategies and habits, professional help can offer valuable tools and insights for long-term success. Speak to a healthcare provider for guidance. 

3. Can emotional eating lead to weight gain?

 Yes, emotional eating can potentially lead to weight gain as the quantity and type of foods consumed during emotional eating episodes may lead to an excessive calorie intake. 

4. How is binge eating disorder different from occasional overeating?

Binge eating disorder is a regular occurrence not connected to occasional overindulgences, and carries with it severe emotional distress. It’s characterized by uncontrollable urges to eat, often beyond fullness, followed by intense feelings of guilt and shame. 

5. Is emotional eating the same as binge eating?

While the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction. Emotional eating involves eating in response to emotions, and not physical hunger. Binge eating, on the other hand, involves consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time, with feelings of loss of control.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a renowned author and podcast host and one of the nation’s leading psychoanalysts known for the psychology of eating. Her signature message of, “It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating ‘at’ you” has resonated with hundreds of thousands of listeners from around the globe in 40 countries. As founder of The Binge Cure Method, she guides emotional eaters to create lasting food freedom so they can take back control of their lives and feel good in their bodies.

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