How Do You Know When Emotional Overeating Is Shrinking Your Jean Size?

Emotional Overeating and How to Overcome It


Admit it, when you feel stressed out, angry, sad, lonely or bored, there’s nothing like a nice box of Ritz crackers, a bag of Lay’s potato chips or a snack of Dorito’s to make it all better. Right? These are the key triggers of emotional eating, and these are the three most popular junk foods in America today.

You may feel better for a while but then you begin thinking about your relationship troubles, financial situation, health worries and whoosh – you impulsively turn to Frito’s and Popcorn for more, albeit short-lived, comfort and relief. Until that doesn’t work and you turn to whatever else is within reach. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

It’s a vicious cycle indeed and like many eating disorders, one that has little or nothing to do with the healthy reason to eat – hunger. At least not physical hunger, that is.

Eating disorders have increased more than threefold during the last half century, despite the fact that we’ve learned so much about the value of eating diaries, mindfulness practices, finding healthy ways to deal with depression, stress, boredom and fatigue, and the importance of exercise and sleep. In this time, we’ve not moved the needle for the 10% or so of the population that have a formal eating disorder. Emotional overeating is closely aligned with the unconscious pattern of binge eating disorder and night-eating syndrome.

Types of Eater

Here are the seven main types of eaters. Notice that they all move to the, “eat, repeat eat, repeat” rhythm:

  1. Unconscious eater – eats while doing something else
  2. Chaotic eater – leads an over-scheduled life and who eats on an “eat-n-go-when-time-is-available” pattern
  3. Refuse not/Waste not eater – eats whenever food is available, and often cleans her plate, regardless of actually feeling full.
  4. Emotional overeater – triggered by uncomfortable emotions rather than hunger—more about this one in a moment
  5. Careful eater – tends to be vigilant about what foods they put into their bodies and are extremely nutrition conscious
  6. Professional dieter – eats not to promote their health but to lose weight, perpetually dieting
  7. Intuitive eater – makes food choices without experiencing guilt, eats when hungry, respects their sense of fullness, and enjoys the pleasure of eating

The most common and often the more challenging to overcome is #4, the emotional overeater.

Signals and Triggers of Emotional Overeating

Here’s how you know when emotional overeating is shrinking your jeans:

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. One minute you’re not even thinking about food, the next minute you’re starving. You hunger goes from 0-80 within moments.
  • You may not hear or feel any stomach rumblings and may have eaten just a short while ago.
  • Your cravings are for one certain type of food, such as pizza, ice cream, or chocolate.
  • With emotional eating, you feel that you need to eat that particular food and that no substitute will do! Real hunger can be satisfied with almost any food, even with a glass of water.
  • It’s all “above your neck.” An emotionally based craving begins in your mouth and in your mind. Your mouth wants to taste the pizza, chocolate, or ice cream. You have strong pictures in your mind of that cupcake calling your name. It isn’t.
  • It’s extraordinarily urgent. Emotional hunger urges you to eat NOW! There is a demand to instantly ease emotional discomfort with food.
  • It’s always paired with an upsetting emotion. Your spouse yelled at you. Your child is in trouble at school. Your boss won’t let up. Emotional hunger occurs in conjunction with an upsetting or distressing situation.
  • It’s often connected to automatic or absent-minded eating. Emotional eating can feel as if someone else’s hand is scooping up the candy and putting it into your mouth.
  • Emotional eating does not stop in response to feeling full.
  • After you eat from your head, you often feel guilty about eating.
  • The paradox of emotional overeating is that you eat to feel better, and then end up angry or disappointed with yourself. Next, you promise to atone (“I’ll exercise, skip a meal,” etc.).

5 Tips To Help You Handle Emotional Overeating

Here are a number of tools I’ve recommended over the years to use when eating from your head, not from your stomach:

  1. Ask yourself:
    Am I biologically hungry?
    What am I feeling?
    What do I need?
    How else can I meet this need?
    Research indicates that individuals who respond to a negative situation with both positive thoughts and constructive action are able to avoid emotion-based eating 85% of the time.
  2. Create and use your own “hunger scale”
    From 0, starving to the point of feeling sick, to 3, hungry with a grumbling stomach, to 7, feeling full and slightly uncomfortable to 10, feeling sick and extremely uncomfortable.
  3. S.T.O.P.
    Stop and pause from whatever you are doing for a five count
    Take a breath
    Observe your thoughts
    What do I want to achieve by eating right now?
    What is there about this food?
    Is this what I really need?
    Proceed with an alternative action other than eating
    Choose the healthy behavior
    Find support in friends and coaching
    Reorganize your environment to reduce temptation
  4. Emotional eating is an inside job
    Create other ways to deal with emotional eating. This might include going for a walk, talking things over with a trusted friend, exercising, taking a nap, or some other productive activity. Tell yourself, It’s just a craving and it’ll pass. It’s not awful. I can stand feeling discomfort. Just because I think it’s what I need, doesn’t mean it really is.
  5. Tame your S.T.R.E.S.S. monster
    Smile more, especially at the first 10 people you see every day.
    Think rationally, accurately, confidently and positively.
    Relive the good in your life, the healthy, the pleasant, and the favorable.
    Eat right including asparagus, avocados, blueberries, warm milk (if you can), almonds, salmon, spinach, oatmeal – and don’t deprive yourself.
    Sweat more through regular full-body exercise at least 150 minutes every week.
    Savor your life by choosing gratitude and focusing your thinking in healthy, mindful, factual ways without predicting gloom and doom.
  6. If you suspect that you may be an emotional overeater or coping with another eating disorder, contact your physician or other medical professional.

Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has been providing psychological and coaching services for nearly 5 decades and continues to empower positive change among his global clients to enhance life in every way. He is a highly sought-after healthcare professional coach, an executive and team building consultant, and a longtime specialist in cognitive behavioral coaching.

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