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Emotional eating. We are all familiar with it.

Emotional eating is  broadly defined as food consumption that occurs due to your emotional state or cues such as boredom, loneliness, or anxiety. 

It happens in a time of heightened emotions. Sometimes it occurs with higher emotions such as joy. Have you ever chosen specific foods or meal when you are celebrating something? More commonly emotional eating occurs to soothe lower emotions such as frustration, guilt, regret, or loneliness. Have you had a bad day and decided, “these cookies are exactly what I need to make me feel better”?

It is accepted as a social norm and our training starts early. I recently saw a commercial that implied that a teenage girl broke up with her boyfriend. Her mom brought her a piece of cake and sat on the floor eating with her to cheer her up.

While we have all had moments of emotional eating, what is the root cause of it? There are a few theories that you may find interesting.

Hunger confusion

One theory that started as early as the 1950s suggested that emotional eating occurred because there was confusion between “internal arousal states” and hunger. These internal arousal states are also known as emotional triggers. Some people have difficulty differentiating the feelings of physical hunger and emotional hunger. Here are a few signs to help you differentiate between the two:

  • Physical hunger starts off gradual. It slowly develops over time. You may start to feel hungry, but it can be ignored and it will go away. Then it will come back again later, this time a little stronger, just to remind you that it’s time to eat. Emotional hunger comes on quickly. It is a constant urge to eat and doesn’t subside until you address it.
  • Physical hunger allows you to desire eating a variety of food. With emotional hunger you crave one thing specifically. “I need chocolate” or “I need a bag of chips.”
  • Physical hunger allows you to feel the sensation of being full, which is your cue to stop eating. When emotional hunger kicks in you don’t feel fullness and it is common to binge, and eat until you are physically uncomfortable.
  • After eating because of physical hunger you don’t have negative feelings about eating. You felt physical signs of hunger, then you ate to satisfy that desire. When eating due to emotional hunger there’s usually a feeling of guilt or shame about eating.

While eating when you are not physically hungry is not a bad thing, if you are letting your emotions lead the way it can lead to a downward spiral of guilt, shame, and self-loathing.

Identifying and labeling emotions

Other theories have concluded that some people have difficulty identifying their emotions. Some emotions are clearly labeled, such as shock or terror. Yet other emotions are diluted, such as a feeling of melancholy.  Some people have difficulty being able to label and identify negative emotions. The discomfort of a negative emotion, while not being able to put a finger on what you are feeling can be a trigger for emotional eating.

Because many people have not learned to process their emotions at all, you simply shut down and go emotionally numb or dead. Food is one of the tools used, alongside alcohol, drugs, sex, and other addictive behaviors, to mask emotions.

Unmet growth need

Another theory that contributes to emotional eating is an unmet growth need such as the need for belonging or the need for self-esteem.

Research shows that higher self-esteem results in less emotional eating. Whereas low levels of spiritual well-being, like low self-esteem, might be related to poor emotional responsiveness—with emotional eating as an outcome.

There is some truth to all of these theories. Changing the habit of emotional eating is a practice. And it is uncomfortable. With each episode you have to dig deep to better understand what is the driving factor. It may not always be the same emotion that drives the behavior. Once the driving emotion is identified, it takes a robust dose of fortitude to deal with and process the emotion in a healthy way. It takes practice and courage in a time when your not feeling your best. Consistently.

I have faith that you can do it.

For more discussion on emotional eating, listen to the When Harry Met Daphne Show on your favorite podcast, where we dive in deep to discuss emotional eating.