Are You an Emotional Overeater?

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Do you eat in response to your feelings and not hunger? Do you crave specific foods like chocolate, chips or ice cream? Do you eat because there is nothing else to do? Do you feel guilty or ashamed after eating? Do you eat in secrecy? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may be an emotional over eater.

We all experience emotional eating at some point in our lives.  Emotional eating is a learned behavior. It’s even learned as early as infancy! When a baby starts crying, new parents are often stressed and don’t know what to do, so they give the baby a bottle. Maybe the baby was hungry, but maybe not … maybe the baby was tired, uncomfortable, or irritable. So, we learn to connect food with comfort. A parent may say to a child, “If you are good at the dentist today, we can go get some ice cream.” Again, this is a message of comforting someone with food.

Over eating can also be fear-based. For example, if you grew up with food not always being available or abundant, then you can develop emotional eating in relation to fear of not having enough food.

As adults, we can use food for comfort when we are tired, upset, bored, lonely, stressed or feeling down. Emotional eating is when we eat because of our emotions and not because of physical hunger. So, our mood dictates what, when and how much we eat.

We can also lose an awareness of our physical hunger and satiety. A lot of us grew up when wasting food was unacceptable, so we were members of the “clean plate club.” When we are told to eat everything on our plate, we can lose a sense of when we are getting satisfied with food, and we develop a pattern of over eating.

With emotional eating, we also crave a certain type of food, mostly simple carbohydrates and fats. These “comfort” foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates (cakes, cookies, ice cream, pizza, chips) release good mood chemicals in our brain (endorphins). So they give us a sense of enjoyment after eating them. When we are bored, tired, depressed or stressed, we crave foods that give us comfort. This is different from physical hunger in that physical hunger entails enjoying a variety of food and not craving any specific foods las we do with emotional eating. Physical hunger is gradual and can wait whereas emotional hunger needs instant gratification.

Avoiding ‘mindless’ eating can help in the process of reducing the amount of food you eat. So, if you like to eat in front of the TV or another distraction, you may want to measure the food out first, before heading to the couch. Instead of bringing the entire bag of chips to the couch, put some in a small bowl and take that with you.

Eating slowly is also a good way to keep in check with the amount that you are eating. So, instead of grabbing a handful of peanuts, try taking one at a time and eating it slowly. By doing this, you can actually taste the peanut, savor it, taste all the flavors of it, and you’ll find yourself slowing down your food intake and save a lot of calories in the process!

Keeping a journal is a great way to get a good visual of what, when and how much food you eating. I highly recommend that you journal your mood at the time since 75 percent of overeating is based on emotions.

When you see a pattern, then you can address what is going on, like eating several cookies after a stressful day at work, or heading for ice cream after an upsetting phone call with a family member. Then, you can cindygoulding-bethmandel_002.jpggradually replace the behavior of eating with something else, like going for a walk, or cleaning a room, or calling a supportive friend. Remember, this is a gradual process. Since cravings last about 20 minutes, think of something that you can do to get you through that period of time. I always recommend physical activity, since it is a natural de-stressor and releases those “good mood” brain chemicals that can lessen the desire to eat based on your mood. Physical activity also improves sleep, so when you are well rested, chances are you won’t be emotionally eating due to tiredness.

So, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you are worthy, beautiful and divine. Take time to take great care of yourself, so then, you can take care of loved ones.

Cindy Goulding, our motivational coach, is a licensed professional counselor, as well as a health and wellness coach and certified personal trainer. She is the author of Healthy Weight: It’s a Family Affair. Her website is

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