Emotional eating is normal and okay until it interferes with your quality of life
Emotional eating is a common ‘problem’ that affects millions of people worldwide. It is often triggered by stress and other negative emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and depression.
In fact, over 40% of people reported eating more when stressed1.
Emotional eating therapy is a form of psychotherapy that can help clients identify their own triggers and develop coping mechanisms to manage them. It teaches clients skills in recognising and challenging thoughts and behaviours associated with emotional eating.
This article will discuss everything you need to know about emotional eating therapy and what you can do to help overcome emotional eating.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a way of coping with emotions that might be hard to deal with. It can involve eating foods that seem to make you feel temporarily better, even if they don’t satisfy your hunger.
Unfortunately, this can lead to weight gain body distrust over time.
What is the root of emotional eating?
Emotional eating often stems from stress, boredom, or unpleasant feelings. If food becomes our primary coping mechanism, a habit is quickly formed. When we are stressed, our body releases chemicals such as cortisol, a hormone which has been shown to make us crave certain foods – particularly sugar, carbs, and fatty foods2.
So, when we’re feeling stressed, we tend to reach for these so-called comfort foods. When we eat emotionally, we are seeking to satisfy or deal with an emotion, not physical hunger.
What is emotional eating therapy?
Emotional eating therapy is a form of treatment that teaches people how to deal with their negative emotions in healthier ways. It’s targeted at people who struggle to control their food intake and eating habits and is based on this idea that emotional factors play a role in why people eat what they deem to be too much.
This approach focuses on helping clients learn to identify and understand their emotions, then develop the skills needed to manage them in ways that won’t lead to overeating or feeling uncomfortable in their body.
Emotional eating therapy aims to help patients live healthier lives by not only regulating their food intake but improving their overall mood and mental wellbeing.
So, how does it work?
Emotional eating therapy typically involves working with a therapist or specialist dietitian to identify which emotions trigger food cravings and why. Once your thoughts and feelings surrounding food have been addressed, the therapist or dietitian can help you develop personalised strategies for managing those emotions.
This might include mindfulness exercises, learning how to cope with cravings, letting go of binge guilt, group therapy, and practising methods for regulating food intake.
It’s based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, a well-established method used by health professionals worldwide. CBT focuses on changing unhealthy thinking patterns and replacing them with more productive ones, teaching people to think differently about themselves and their bodies.
Studies have demonstrated that emotional eating therapy is an effective treatment option3 and could help you break the cycle of emotional eating once and for all.
Top three tips for tackling emotional eating
We know it’s tempting but don’t restrict your food intake. This often backfires (not that you need us telling you that!). Instead of skipping meals or trying to cut down on what you’re having, aim to eat balanced meals and snacks more frequently throughout the day.
Be mindful of your feelings and practice not reacting. Remember, we are aiming to change your habits so the next time you feel like you’re about to binge or eat for emotional reasons, set a timer for 10 minutes, close your eyes and breathe. If you still end up bingeing or eating for emotional reasons once the timer goes off, that’s okay!
The aim here is to build in a pause so you can give yourself the opportunity to slow down, do a mindful check-in and ask yourself “is food what I really need, or do I need something else?”
If you choose to eat for emotional reasons, then let the food soothe you. Food is innately comforting, and you have permission to eat for emotional reasons. The trick here is to give yourself permission to eat for comfort and then allow the food to soothe you. This is a game changer for most of our clients so let us know how you go with this one by sending us a message on Instagram. Our handle is @embodyhealthlondon_
Would you like more support from a specialist dietitian who gets it? Here at EHL, we work with clients every single day to help them reclaim their power around food and to nurture a healthy relationship with their body.
Robin Wileman, EHL Dietitian Student Intern
1 Emotional Eating Definition, Treatment & Causes. (2020, September 30). MedicineNet.
2 Geiker, N. R. W., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2017). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa? Obesity Reviews, 19(1), 81–97.
3 Carroll, E. A., Czerwinski, M., Roseway, A., Kapoor, A., Johns, P., Rowan, K., & Schraefel, M. C. (2013). Food and Mood: Just-in-Time Support for Emotional Eating. 2013 Humaine Association Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction, 252–257.