We don't always eat just to satisfy our physical hunger. Many of us also reach for food to calm ourselves down, relieve stress, or reward ourselves. And when we do, we often reach for junk food, sweets, and other comforting but unhealthy foods. You might reach for a tub of ice cream when you're feeling low, order a pizza when you're bored or lonely, or stop by the drive-through after a stressful day at work.
Emotional eating means that you use food to feel better – to satisfy your emotional needs, not your stomach. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn't fix emotional problems. In fact, it usually makes you feel worse. Afterward, not only does the original emotional concern remain, but you also feel guilty for eating too much.
What causes someone to eat because of their emotions?
Negative emotions can lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. It is thought that eating is a way to fill this emptiness and create a false sense of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.
Other factors include:
- Withdrawal from social support in times of emotional distress.
- Refraining from activities that would otherwise cause relieve stress, sadness, etc.
- Failure to understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger.
- Engaging in negative self-talk associated with bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating.
- That alters cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.
The difference between emotional hunger and real hunger
Humans need to eat to live. Therefore, you may be wondering how to distinguish between emotional signals and real hunger pangs. Several differences can help you figure out what you are experiencing.
- It develops slowly over time.
- You crave a variety of food groups.
- You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a signal to stop eating.
- It occurs suddenly or abruptly.
- You only crave certain foods.
- You may have food cravings without feeling full.
- You feel guilt or shame about eating.
Also, you may be an emotional eater if you observe these things in yourself:
- You eat in response to feelings or situations rather than to satisfy your hunger.
- You feel an urgent need to eat.
- You eat a larger amount of food than usual.
- You eat at unusual times of the day (e.g. late at night).
- Excessive weight gain.
- "Sneaking" food at times of great tension.
- Hiding empty food containers.