What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating means that you eat for reasons other than hunger. You may eat because you're sad, depressed, stressed, or lonely. Or you may use food as a reward. Food can be soothing and distract you from what's really bothering you.
If you are an emotional eater, you may not listen to your body's natural hunger and fullness signals. You may eat more than you need or want.
Emotional eating can interfere with making healthy food choices. And it can keep you from getting to a healthy weight and staying there.
What are signs of emotional eating?
Everyone eats for reasons other than hunger once in a while. But if you notice that you often reach for food out of boredom or for comfort, you may be eating for emotional reasons.
Common signs of emotional eating are:
- Changing your eating habits when you have more stress in your life.
- Eating when you are not hungry or when you are full.
- Eating to avoid dealing with a stressful situation.
- Eating to soothe your feelings.
- Using food as a reward. (For example, "That was really a tough job/assignment/argument. I need some ice cream/candy/popcorn!")
What are some ways to deal with emotional eating?
Identify your emotional eating triggers
One way to figure out what triggers emotional eating is to keep a food journal.
Write down when and what you eat. Also write down what you were doing and feeling before you started eating. You can use this information to find patterns in your eating habits. For example, you might notice that every time you start to worry about an assignment at work, you buy an unhealthy snack from the office vending machine.
Use a hunger scale
A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between true, physical hunger and hunger that's really just in your head. Psychological hunger is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions, like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness.
When you start feeling like you want something to eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of 5 or 6 means you're comfortable—neither too hungry nor too full.
- 1—Starving, weak, dizzy
- 2—Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling
- 3—Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
- 4—Starting to feel a little hungry
- 5—Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
- 6—A little full, pleasantly full
- 7—A little uncomfortable
- 8—Feeling stuffed
- 9—Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
- 10—So full you feel sick
Use the scale to rate your hunger level. If you feel like eating but your hunger level is a 6 or higher on the scale, stop and check your emotions.
For more information about listening to your body's hunger signals, see:
Change your usual response to stress and other triggers
When you start to recognize your emotional eating triggers, you can change the way you respond to them. Instead of reaching for a candy bar or bag of chips to soothe your emotions, try these ideas instead:
- Take a short relaxation break.
- Take time to stop and think about what is really bothering you and how you could deal with it.
- Change what you're doing. Take a short walk down the hall or around the block.
- Call a friend.
- If you are truly hungry, reach for a healthy meal or snack. Focus on the experience of eating, and enjoy your food.
For more on how you can change your thoughts and manage emotional eating, see the topic Stop Negative Thoughts: Choosing a Healthier Way of Thinking or see:
Where can you get more help?
If you feel like you need more help, talk to a dietitian or a counselor to help you understand your emotions and eating habits.
Current as of: March 17, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator