Eating Your Feelings?

Erin Kirby
October 18, 2022

Do you ever eat when you’re feeling negative emotions? I think most of us can answer yes. This is what we call emotional eating, and it can give us a certain amount of relief, helping us cope or avoid tricky emotions. It is a very normal response but may not fix our emotional problems. Doing it often can lead to an unhealthy habit that may affect our health and wellbeing. We can also end up feeling worse after eating because of the negative feelings remaining afterwards. 

So, what’s the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger? Emotional hunger often comes on suddenly, where you crave specific foods, and is triggered by stress or difficult emotions. Whereas physical hunger usually builds gradually, is often characterised by physical pains in the stomach and decreases as you eat and feel full. 

Recognising our hunger cues can help us know when to start and stop eating. By using the hunger and fullness scale we can gain back control of our eating and understand whether we are physically hungry. 

Hunger Scale

How to use it:  

  1. Before you eat: focus your attention on your stomach and try and allow it to give you a number, aim for about a 3 on the scale.  
  1. While eating: be mindful, allowing yourself to be in tune of your hunger and fullness signals.  
  1. After eating: aim to be about a 6 on the scale, a content state of fullness. 

But what can trigger emotional eating…? 

Learning what situations or emotions can trigger this behaviour is a useful way to help you gain back control. Be it a difficult day at work, boredom, or loneliness. Eating can help us relieve tensions and achieve pleasure. Specifically high fat or sugar foods stimulate a feel-good pathway in our brain. Making this association can encourage us to repeat the behaviour. 

Try a Food & Mood diary! 

Food and mood diaries can help us identify these triggers. Jot down everything you eat and drink during the day and: 

  • How you felt before, during and after each time  
  • If there were any events leading to how you were feeling before or during eating 
  • Where you were 
  • Who were you with 
  • What you were you doing while eating
  • How you feel 1-2 hours after eating

This can help you highlight the patterns between your emotions and your food choices to regain control of your relationship with food. 

The Delay Distract Decide technique 

This another useful technique to use before you start into eating or drinking:

Delay Before you dive into that food or drink set a time limit on how long to delay (between 5-20 minutes). Be curious about the emotions you’re feeling – sadness, boredom, or stress 

Distract – Whilst your delaying do something to meet your emotional need. Something you like such as calling a friend, going for a walk, watching a film, or journaling to help you process your feelings. 

Decide – once the time is up think about how you feel now? You might feel that your craving has passed, especially if you’ve met your emotional needs in a different way. If not, you can always repeat the process again. But if that craving isn’t going anywhere, maybe it’s best to honour your emotional need and enjoy a little of what will hit the spot without any guilt or shame. 

10 more tips… 

  1. Create positive experiences with food, planning, cooking, and experimenting. 
  1. Find a routine with regular meals that you enjoy. 
  1. Plan your menu and weekly shop. 
  1. Try not to go shopping when your hungry or stressed. 
  1. Identify what triggers you, this’ll make it easier to avoid emotional eating. 
  1. Avoid buying foods you tend to crave and overeat. 
  1. Prepare healthy snacks like yoghurt and fruit, a small handful of mixed nuts, or vegetable sticks with hummus. 
  1. Find alternative ways to address your emotional needs. Investigate how mindfulness, time management and problem-solving skills can help you. 
  1. Learn to question why you want to eat. Bored? Try a new activity or strike a job off your to-do list. Stressed? Take a break, go for a walk, and get some fresh air. Lonely? Call a friend or family member. 
  1. Look after yourself. This can be half an hour with a cuppa and a good book, a peaceful bath or a woodland walk with friends. Find what lifts your spirits and put some self care in the diary regularly. 

But most importantly, be kind to yourself. With many of us working from home and/or under extremely challenging circumstances, it’s ok to just ‘be’. We all make poor judgements sometimes and that’s ok. Go easy on yourself and make little positive changes when you can.