March 27, 2020

Learn how to stop emotional eating and separate physical hunger from emotional hunger.

We think of eating as something we do out of necessity, to fuel our bodies. It’s more complicated than that, however. Emotional eating — which typically means overeating — is pretty common.

According to researchers at the University of Maryland, 75 percent of overeating is caused by emotions. Being aware of your emotions can help you conquer emotional eating, stick to a nutrition plan and be more resilient when unexpected events throw you off kilter.

Common connections

There are many common connections between emotions and food cravings:

  • Early childhood experiences and associations with food stick with us into adulthood.
  • Under stress, the body tends to crave carbohydrates, which have chemical properties that soothe and relax us.
  • Focusing mental energy on food distracts us from what we are feeling or prevents us from facing feelings.

Why do we crave certain foods? Cravings depend on the emotions you’re feeling, and the emotions you associate with certain foods. (For example, perhaps you crave soup when sick because that’s what your mother served you to help you feel better. Or maybe childhood events were celebrated with ice cream, so that is a “happy” food to you.)

Know your hunger

It’s important to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. Knowing the difference can help you avoid unwanted weight gain and blood sugar spikes:

Signs of physical hunger:

  • It comes on gradually and can be ignored for a while;
  • Hunger can be satisfied by many kinds of food;
  • It won’t compel you to keep eating after you’re full;
  • Physical hunger doesn’t cause feelings of guilt.

Signs of emotional hunger:

  • It feels sudden and urgent;
  • It triggers very specific cravings, such as pizza or ice cream;
  • It drives you to eat even after you feel full;
  • It often leads to feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment afterwards.

Are you an emotional eater? If you answer yes to any of the questions in this quick emotional eating quiz, you may be.

Do you eat more when you feel stressed?
Do you eat when you’re not hungry, or when you’re full?
Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re dealing with grief, or you are sad, mad, bored or anxious, etc.)?
Do you reward yourself with food?
Do you regularly eat until you are uncomfortable?
Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?

Emotional eating is a common habit, but there are ways to combat it. Learning to limit eating to times when your body is physically hungry will help you stay at a healthy weight.

This post was provided by Vanderbilt Work/Life Connections, which supports Vanderbilt University Medical Center employees.