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5 Safe alternatives to emotional eating

emotional eating

How to stop emotional eating and what to do instead


We’ve all seen movies showing post-breakup ice cream cravings to deal with heartbreak – but should we be worried about using food as an emotional crutch? And is it harming our health? In this article we will look at emotional eating, how to deal with it in general, and more specifically the relationship between emotional eating and stress.


What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is often defined as our tendency to overeat as a response to experiencing negative emotions1. In German, the term Kummerspeck means grief bacon4 and refers to eating when sad.

We should remember that emotional eating can be used to refer to eating of any kind – over or undereating – driven by a psychological and / or emotional trigger, whether that’s a positive or negative emotion.

We eat food that is nostalgic and associated with happy memories as well as consuming when we are bored or anxious. It is only when we over-rely on food in response to negative feelings that we may need to be concerned.

Hunger that causes emotional eating often comes on abruptly in response to a stressor and leads to a longing for foods that are easily palatable or associated with positive experiences. Do you find yourself eating more when you are stressed or anxious? Or do you eat when you are bored?

As we reach for these foods, emotional eating can lead to feelings of guilt directly after the experience. If this is something you often encounter, it may be time to investigate whether you are eating emotionally.


Why should we be concerned about emotional eating?

Links have been found between emotional eating and depression, as well as binge eating and various eating disorders5. Emotional eaters also tend to report higher levels of body dissatisfaction and an increased desire for thinness5.

A 2013 study found that 40% of participants increased their food intake when stressed, while 40% decreased their intake3

Emotional eating may be considered an example of disordered eating, with a risk of tipping over into the territory of an eating disorder.


Emotional eating and stress

When we are stressed, our bodies quickly release adrenalin and cortisol as part of our fight or flight response. The adrenalin temporarily lowers your appetite, but it is fleeting.  The stress-hormone – cortisol lingers and its role being to replenish the body long after the stress has passed. If chronically raised, cortisol drives you to eat more and store body fat in the visceral areas – deep within your abdominal area surrounding your organs.

This in part explains why when you’re really stressed, there’s an urge to have to do something, anything.  And it’s usually something easy and comforting – like eating or drinking. 

In essence, your raised cortisol levels increase your desire for high carbohydrate-rich food– and once you give in to it once – once turns into twice and three times… and your brain learns a shortcut to feel a sense of comfort. A habit is now formed.


How to deal with emotional eating


  1. Identify the reason why you want to eat

Methods such as journaling may be useful to help you notice any patterns of emotional eating as well as help you acknowledge what it is you are feeling. This may be a process that allows you to work on embodiment and listening to internal cues around food – especially in relation to hunger.


  1. Diversify your toolbox to deal with your emotions

Eating releases a rush of our happy hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. So, it makes sense we would want to continue eating if we are feeling down, overwhelmed, or negative. But food is not the sole source of these happy hormones! Dopamine is released in response to sunshine, listening to music, and connecting and socialising with other human beings.


  1. And, breathe!

Breathing exercises and mindfulness can be a great resource to help deal with emotions and cause the body to move away from the fight or flight mode that comes with stress, into a relaxed, calm and present state.

Utilising mindfulness might mean that when you reach for food when anxious you slow down and appreciate all aspects of that food, and how it makes you feel. Are you still using it to soothe your emotions? Maybe! But the difference here is that you are consciously choosing to eat emotionally with awareness2 and attunement.


  1. Tap into your social network or join a support group

This will allow you to feel less alone in your experiences. Equally hanging out with friends and family will allow you to circumvent thinking about food or being bored as a trigger for eating.


  1. Be mindful of what you eat and how food makes you feel

Again, journaling might be helpful here, it will allow you to see how food makes you feel emotionally and physically. Can any associations be found between certain foods and their effect on you, especially any regular bouts of emotional eating after regular occurrences or periods of stress?


  1. Seek professional help

A 2018 study found that participants who ate emotionally believed that it would be impossible stop. Our thoughts create our reality and us human beings have unlimited potential. Most of us are just scraping the surface of our powers. Fear not friends, you inherently possess the wisdom, courage, and tenacity to make powerful changes in your life! It’s NEVER too late. You can achieve food freedom, body confidence, and shape your new reality.

If you are not where you want to be in your food and body freedom journey, think about where you are holding back. You have one shot at this thing called life and you are worth investing in. Want more support? Email us at  [email protected] to discuss group coaching or one-to-one tailored support.


Kacie Shoulders, ANutr

Team EHL



Frayn et al 2018 – Emotional eating and weight regulation: a qualitative study of compensatory behaviours and concerns – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s40337-018-0210-6

Mindful – A Mindful Approach to Emotional Eating https://www.mindful.org/a-mindful-approach-to-emotional-eating/

Yau and Potenza 2013 – Stress and Eating Behaviours https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/

Reichenberger et al 2019 – Emotional eating in healthy individuals and patients with an eating disorder: evidence from psychometric, experimental and naturalistic studies https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/emotional-eating-in-healthy-individuals-and-patients-with-an-eating-disorder-evidence-from-psychometric-experimental-and-naturalistic-studies/971ADF9FDF616EB6A7CCAACD76F68493

Braden et al 2018 – Eating when depressed, anxious, bored, or happy: Are emotional eating types associated with unique psychological and physical health correlates? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666317315933

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Embody Health London Team

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Embody Health London champions food freedom, positive body image, mental health and emotional wellbeing through a uniquely blended scientific and holistic approach. The EHL team specialises in treating chronic dieting and eating disorders by coaching clients to build confidence and reduce anxiety around their eating habits and food choices.

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