Emotional Eating is a Sign of an Unhealthy Food Relationship

Have you ever noticed that you get strong food cravings at times of emotional turmoil? Do you often turn to food for comfort when you’re stressed, anxious, sad… or even just feeling bored? If so, you’re likely using emotional eating as a coping mechanism.

It’s completely normal to eat at times for reasons unrelated to actual energy requirements (e.g eating cake at a celebration, eating beyond fullness at a special restaurant, etc). However, routine emotional eating that causes you to feel guilty or shameful is not supportive of a healthy food relationship.

The Connection Between Eating and Mood

Feeling negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, or boredom, is not in itself harmful. It’s how we respond to these feelings that can cause problems.

I like to use the Feelings Mountain to illustrate how we experience negative emotions. It shows the normal progression of how we experience negative emotions:

Someone using emotional eating to cope eats food to alter his or her mood and short-circuit the negative feeling:

Emotional Eating: Using Food to Short-Circuit Negative Emotions

But that’s not where it ends. Using food to soothe one negative emotion often causes new, very powerful negative emotions to surface: shame and guilt. If you feel shame overeating, you may  respond to that shame by using food, again, to cope:

Emotional Eating: The Shame Spiral

It doesn’t make any logical sense to soothe negative feelings about eating by eating again, but our emotions aren’t terribly logical. This is how we get stuck in an emotional eating cycle. Negative emotions trigger overeating, overeating triggers shame or guilt, and the shame triggers more eating.

Continually soothing or distracting yourself with food in this way can make your emotions deeply entangled with your eating behaviors. Eventually, you may automatically reach for food when you’re stressed or anxious. You may not even be consciously aware of what you’re doing.

Struggling to Gain Control of Emotional Eating?

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How to Regain Control Over Emotional Eating

1. Understand Your Patterns

In order to gain control over emotional eating, you’ll need to have a clear idea of when it happens. Try keeping a food journal to make note of your eating habits and moods. Ideally, this food journal will be a non-judgmental, passive observation of these patterns. I don’t recommend using calorie counting apps. Sometimes the best tool for this is a little paper journal that you can stick in your bag or pocket.

After a few days of journaling, look through your journal and figure out how often you eat while feeling negative emotions. What time of day does this tend to happen? Are there days it occurs most frequently? Which foods do you turn to?

2. Get Comfortable with the Feelings Mountain

Remember that Feelings Mountain illustrates how negative emotions rise and fall. This process can happen all at once in a matter of minutes or come in waves for hours. It’s not comfortable to experience negative emotions, but knowing that the bad feeling will eventually subside will help you break the emotional eating cycle.

3. Develop Healthy Coping Strategies

Eating is not a great coping strategy for bad feelings because it causes more problems (and more negative feelings). A healthier coping strategy could be found by asking yourself: “What do I really need right now?” Here are some answers that my clients have come up with:

  • A friend to talk to
  • Some time by myself (taking a bath, going for a walk, reading, journaling, singing)
  • Something to keep my hands busy (knitting, embroidery, origami, painting)
  • A quiet mind (meditation, yoga, a walk)
  • Movement (running, jumping, playing with the kids or dog, hiking)

4. Ask for Help

True resolution of emotional eating involves addressing the underlying emotional causes along with re-learning how to eat in a way that is supportive to your health. The best way to gain control of emotional eating is by working with a team that consists of:


Get Help from a Dietitian

We can help you gain control of emotional eating. Book a free consult today!

About the Author

Brittany Markides, MS, RD, LD, CHC

Brittany Markides, MS, RD, LD, CHC

Founder, Choose Food

My name is Brittany Markides. I founded Choose Food because, in my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I saw so many trying to make positive health changes, but struggling to stay on restrictive diets. At Choose Food, I deliver food-positive, body-positive nutrition counseling to help people:

  • Regain power over your food choices to reduce overeating, binge eating, and emotional eating
  • Manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease
  • Find relief from anxious thoughts about food and your body
  • Rediscover your natural hunger and satiety cues
  • Alleviate IBS symptoms through nutrition therapy
  • Cultivate self-acceptance & self-compassion

Finding the right fit is paramount in creating change. That’s why I offer a free phone consultation to provide you with the opportunity to ask questions, learn about my services, and decide if you think I am the right dietitian for you and your situation. If I’m not the right fit for you, I will help you find the right person.