Are you an emotional eater?
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
From the moment we come into the world, the act of eating is associated with love
and comfort. Newborns nursing or being held close while drinking a bottle have the
immediate warmth of their parents or caretakers during meals. As we get older, food
is sometimes used as a reward for “being a good girl.” We carry that behavior into
adulthood, “rewarding” ourselves with food on particularly difficult or stressful
Beneath our deep emotional connections to food, there are often underlying physical
imbalances that can lead to cravings and overeating which also complicate matters.
And so it’s no wonder we turn to food when we are feeling emotionally unbalanced.
It’s no wonder that when women are told to simply stop eating if they’re not really
hungry, they often can’t. It’s just not that easy.
While it’s common to comfort yourself with food when you’re feeling stressed, sad,
nervous, angry, tired, or even bored, it helps to have the right tools and techniques
to help figure out the true cause of your “hunger.” I hope this article will help
you get to a comfortable place with the way you eat and offer some real-life solutions
for curbing emotional eating. If you have a deeper issue with food or overeating,
I highly recommend seeing a counselor or therapist to help you sort through and
resolve these core emotional issues.
My approach to resolving emotional eating has three steps:
- Gain awareness
- Explore possible root causes
- Make a plan
Gain awareness: Are your emotions guiding your food decisions?
Why we eat, when, and how much are not black and white questions — there are many
shades of gray. It’s comforting to know that at some point in our lives, all of
us are emotional eaters. It’s not something to feel guilt or shame about. Here are
some questions to consider:
- Do you turn to food when you’re upset or stressed?
- Do you feel guilty or unhappy about what you eat?
- Do you deprive yourself of meals or snacks when something has gone wrong in your
- Do you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry, just to feel better?
- Do you think about food all the time?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, think about how often the
scenario happens. When your emotions are routinely dictating what and how much you
eat, the first step to changing the pattern is becoming aware of what you’re doing.
Instead of getting to the bottom of a bag of chips and realizing, I’m eating these
because I’m stressed, I’m angry, I’m sad, etc, it’s wonderful if you can
learn to stop and recognize what you’re doing before you’ve gone too far or even
before you take your first bite. This way you can decide whether you truly are hungry,
you want to eat to help resolve your feelings, or whether you’d rather do something
Explore root causes: food cravings aren’t always about self-control
Women come to me and say, Marcelle, I have no self-control when it comes to eating.
Any time I’m upset, nervous, anxious, or even happy, I turn to food. It’s
always good to start with potential physiological root causes — because these are
sometimes much easier to fix than deep emotional issues.
Women berate themselves for giving in to cravings for sugar, carbohydrates, chocolate,
salt, or caffeine, when in many cases cravings have nothing to do with self-control
or a woman’s emotional state. Instead, cravings can stem from genuine physiological
imbalances in the body. The most common imbalances I see that may cause cravings
- Adrenal imbalance
— often caused by chronic stress
imbalance — often caused by low serotonin, one of our “feel good” chemicals
- Hormonal imbalances
— often caused by the shifting hormone levels that accompany menopause
- Food sensitivities — most commonly gluten, dairy, yeast, eggs, soy, and citrus
- Yeast overgrowth — often in the gut due to lack of healthy bacteria
- Blood sugar imbalances — often due to a diet high in carbs and low in fiber
- Nutritional deficiencies — most commonly B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium
- Leptin resistance — causing us to not get the “I’m full” message
Systemic imbalances can mix up your body’s signals having to do with food and weight,
leading to overeating that may look like emotional eating on the surface. If you’re
interested in working past systemic imbalances and losing weight, our
Personal Program for Weight Loss Resistance is an effective way for you
to get past your personal barriers so your body will begin to let go of excess weight.
Make a plan: tips for satisfying eating
We don’t always have the time to explore our emotional connection to food and can’t,
or don’t, always think before we act. This is why it helps to make a plan beforehand.
Below are some very practical tips you might consider as you make a more comprehensive
plan for dealing with emotional eating. You don’t have to do all of these! Just
peruse them and see which resonate most with your life.
1. Start with paying attention to your hunger signs. Rate your
hunger on a scale of one to ten. One is not hungry at all and ten is starving. Try
to eat when you are at about seven. You should feel your stomach start to growl,
but should not be feeling light headed yet. Letting yourself get too hungry may
lead to overeating.
2. Make a list of foods you enjoy eating and that make you feel good
— go to this list when you feel confused about what to eat.
3. Cut sugar from your diet. Sugar can be as addicting as some
illegal drugs and can certainly lead to overeating by sending hunger signals to
the brain even when we’re full.
4. Drink plenty of filtered water. Sometimes dehydration can make
us feel like we’re hungry.
5. Find a high-quality multivitamin like the one we offer in our
Personal Program to be sure you’re covering your nutritional basics.
6. Portion out healthy snacks in small bags to keep on-hand in
the fridge and pantry. Some ideas include: cut carrots, a handful of nuts, a few
slices of cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. Planning ahead is especially important if
you travel a lot.
7. If you’re going to a party or special event, make a food and drink plan ahead
of time. For example, I’m going to have one alcoholic drink and two desserts
tonight. Next time I can do something different, if I choose to.
8. Try making all the food you eat from scratch for a week. This
allows you to plan and be very mindful of the ingredients and portions you choose.
Many patients find success when they rotate between three different breakfasts,
three lunches, and three dinners.
For some women focusing on portion size, especially in the beginning, is too restrictive.
Work to feel good about providing for your body instead of feeling guilty or wrong.
Feeling good and eating well
If you think you might be an emotional eater, take comfort in the fact that you
absolutely can do something about it. Gain awareness, explore emotional and physical
causes, and make a plan. These steps can bolster your strength to make lasting changes
in your life — and we are always here for support.
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References & further reading
about emotional eating
Last Modified Date: 05/25/2011