Emotional Eating

Food can be flavorful, fun, and filling, yet when it’s regularly used to suppress not so nice feelings, it can lead to emotional eating.

  • Published: 4/12/2022
  • 4 min. read

Food can be flavorful, fun, and filling. Still, it can lead to emotional eating when it’s regularly used to suppress not-so-nice feelings. Rather than adding more stress to your situation by feeling guilty after eating for emotional reasons, learn why it happens, how to embrace the uncomfortable, and use healthier coping mechanisms.

The pleasure of eating

Eating is one of the top pleasures of life. It can connect our cultures and help us have a creative outlet by cooking and blending tastes, textures, and flavors. We need to eat to survive; thus, our bodies have adapted to ensure we enjoy it and keep coming back for more. The problem is when we continually use food to suppress negative emotions.

What causes emotional eating?

Uncomfortable feelings 

Emotional eating can be caused by uncomfortable feelings such as boredom or sadness from relationship struggles. Food is thought to be a way to avoid that emotional void. It can act as a distraction or a way to temporarily fill a void. 


When we have increased stress, it can also raise the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to craving foods such as sugary, salty, and sweet ones. It may also increase the appetite hormone ghrelin, which makes us feel more hungry (1). 

Physical cravings 

Like all rewards, our brains are hardwired to crave more in what’s called the pleasure cycle (2). Chemicals kick in when we eat something high in fat and sugar (cake, candy, cookies, ice cream). This physical adaptation is there to help us survive in times of famine. A preference for these foods ensures that we get in as many calories as possible. 

Emotional vs true hunger

Since we’re constantly exposed to food marketing and product placement, it can be challenging to differentiate between emotional eating and actual hunger cues (3). We may also have learned certain ways of eating as taught by our parents or community, which confuse our innate hunger and fullness signals.  

Emotional eating, however, tends to come on quickly and strongly. It’s usually associated with specific comfort foods, like fast food instead of lean protein and vegetables. It’s usually mindless eating (4). 

On the other hand, physical hunger tends to come on slower, and the sensation of fullness comes on sooner. There will be less chance of guilt or shame about eating, which shows up in the emotional eating cycle.

Emotional eating cycle 

The emotional eating cycle may start with something upsetting, such as work or relationship stress. There is an almost immediate urge to eat, typically craving certain foods. It may feel as if you ate more than you “should” have. This then perpetuates feelings of guilt. The guilt then starts the cycle over again, worsening the feeling of upset (4).

HALTing emotional eating 

One way to break the emotional eating cycle is to HALT before eating. This acronym stands for: hungry, lonely, angry/anxious, tired. These are common triggers for emotional eating, which we will address how to change. 


Before you eat:

  1. Ask yourself if you are really hungry. If it is not true hunger, you may be eating for emotional reasons.
  2. If you are not sure, try starting off with a wholesome snack containing protein and fiber, such as a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit.
  3. Drink a glass of water since dehydration may sometimes be confused with hunger signals. 


Anger tends to be a surface response to a more profound emotion such as hurt, fear, or stress. Ask yourself if the anger or anxiety is driving you to eat. If you are anxious, consider an activity that relaxes you, such as going for a walk, calling a friend, or deep breathing. Once stress subsides, you may notice a decrease in the urge to eat. 


Sometimes being alone can be uncomfortable, and food may be used to suppress this emotion. If you think you may be lonely, consider calling a friend, writing in a journal, sending a letter to someone you miss or making a date to hang out with someone you enjoy.


Fatigue can be confused with hunger. In fact, there is an association between sleep loss and obesity (5). When we don’t get enough sleep, appetite hormones may rise, making us think we’re hungry when we’re not necessarily. If possible, take a power nap, move around, or get some fresh air. Aim to get a good amount of sleep in the evening.

Food is vital for our health

We need to eat to live - so ensure you provide your body with a balanced diet with enough energy and nutrients and have a regular eating schedule filled with nutritious meals. It can help decrease stress and increase the chances of eating mindfully. 

It’s ok to ask for help

However, emotional eating can become an ingrained habit that can be challenging to break. It’s hard work to look below the surface and explore and experience deeper feelings. If your eating patterns feel out of control or you are experiencing a complicated relationship with food, always reach out for extra support. Contact your doctor or mental health practitioner. 

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.