What Does It Mean to Be an Emotional Eater?


Almost all of us will eat in response to some emotional trigger.

This means that when we feel happy or sad,  depressed, angry or frustrated or  we may feel scared then the first thing that most of us reach for is either food or drink.


Heard this before?


I teach a Nutrition unit in college and  just a couple of weeks back i asked the students to do a food diary for 4 days. in this food diary they had to identify what they ate and how they felt at that time. It was enlightening to say the least as most of them could identify their triggers for eating junk food. Many of the triggers have been mentioned above and actually seeing this in writing can be an awakening for many people


The majority of people  do not recognize the emotional aspects which play into their eating habits.


Don’t feel bad  if that is you as you aren’t alone i can assure you!


It is not unusual to be unaware of the factors or triggers that impact emotional eating.


In fact, many of our decisions have an emotional component even before we’ve had the chance to make a rational decision.  Advertising gurus take full advantage of these emotional buying decisions to increase their income.


Through years of this conditioning and exposure to family and friends and constant advertising all of us are subconsciously conditioned to believe that food will just make us feel good.


Read that sentence again and let it sink in….if you get it then it will totally change the way you think about food.


Food does of course fill our real biological needs and provides us with energy. However, as we develop into the mode of emotional eating then we  are using food to fill another void in their lives. (1)


Emotional eating is  one of the beginning stages of an eating disorder. Many people will never progress as far as  having an eating disorder but there is a very fine line between emotional eating and illness.


So how can you tell which category you fall into –  a compulsive eater or emotional eater?


Individuals who suffer from  eating disorders will show characteristics of both. They will binge on large amounts of food quickly. They also state that they feel out of control with food or they feel they are obsessed with food.


Other behaviors that are indicative of these two disorders are hiding food around the house or eating and hiding away from the rest of the family.


An example would be where the primary shopper might buy foods that are hidden from the rest of the family and these foods are either eaten before they arrive home from the store or after everyone has gone to bed.


Most people who exhibit an eating disorder or  have a problem with the emotional eating will also have experienced dramatic events in their lives. This could be physical or sexual abuse.


Research has shown that the percentage of people with an eating disorder who have experienced this type of abuse is higher than those with a simple emotional eating problem.


People who suffer from binge eating or compulsive eating will have several challenges, one of which is the lack of education in the public and medical arenas. These conditions are not  as well popularized as anorexia or bulimia and in many cases the individuals may not even know they have a medical disorder.


People who have this type of eating disorder should never attempt to “go on a diet” but should  seek the advice of a trained licensed therapist. (2)


Even though there is a definite correlation between the number of calories that are eaten and the amount of weight which is lost, individuals who suffer from a compulsive eating disorder will need support and understanding about their disorder before any  weight loss can be successful.


For those who want to take control of their emotional eating habits then a beginning comes with a self-awareness of the problem and this will lead into self-management.


Self-awareness is an extremely difficult step to take with any self-destructive behavior as it involves the acceptance  of  a weakness which has led to the problem of obesity.


Just like I did with my student Individuals can begin to evaluate their own emotional eating habits by keeping a short four to five day diary. Write down each time any  food goes into your mouth. You don’t have to write down what you eat or the number of calories, just the time of the day and how you are feeling each time you reach for  food. You must  first  acknowledge that there will be a feeling for you to discover and then you have to identify that emotion.


This process will become easier each day you attempt it and will ultimately lead to self discovery.


At the end of the fifth day  take a look through the diary and note down how many times you ate because you were, or thought you were hungry. Compare this number against the times of the day where other emotions  seemed to be involved in the  reach for food.


By being completely honest with yourself ….. and that is really important….you will learn how to  change your own habits and increase your success with weight loss.


Managing your eating is your next step. Remember that Like all things in life, the longer you do something the easier it gets. This means that you must have some tolerance and understanding with yourself, as this emotional eating problem took a while to develop and probably did not happen overnight.


When you practice something it really does make it easier.  You may choose to do this on your own – but you will have much more success if you involve the help of a partner, a program or even a calendar.


Continue to always write down the times that you eat and the emotional reasons you are putting that food into your mouth. Believe  me that when you are forced to write before you eat, and  you read the reasons before you eat then you will be more encouraged to put the food down when you are angry, depressed or on an emotional high. The process of emotional eating will start to  decrease and you will be surprised to once again feel hungry!


(1) Temple University: Managing the Emotions Behind Eating
(2) National Institute of Mental Health: What are Eating Disorders