Eating Your Emotions

I wandered into the kitchen feeling lost and lonely.  My husband was out-of-town and my dog died in March; this was the first time I was in the house totally alone.  I opened the refrigerator looking for something, anything that would fill the emptiness I felt.  Cheese, almond butter, and crackers were tasty but didn’t help me feel any better. In fact, I felt worse.

Chances are you’ve had a similar experience.  Many of us have used food to help us during times of stress: boredom, loneliness, depression, anxiety or exhaustion. Although much has been written about emotional eating, uncovering the causes, triggers and remedies isn’t as simple as turning off a spigot.

Food = Love

Old habits die hard.  Using food to express love is commonplace; as kids we may have been rewarded with cookies or ice cream or some other favorite food.  Sometimes these foods aren’t among the typical list of special treats.  Registered dietitian, Ashley Reaver ( remembers one of her clients eating saltines and butter as her comfort food. 

Reaver acknowledges that food is a coping mechanism for many people, often linked to childhood messages and patterns.  She recommends keeping track of food choices as well as when those choices are made. Reaver claims overeating or consuming empty (non-nutritious) calories occurs most often in the evening. 

Scales Be Damned

Reaver has observed that her clients trying to lose weight tend to be very restrictive in their food choices, which ultimately leads to failure.  Forbidding certain foods creates a craving for those foods.  Reaver tries to shift the focus away from what shouldn’t be eaten to a plan that includes healthy food choices and sufficient protein.  Setting realistic goals is her focus as well as weaning folks away from being a slave to the scales.  Reaver recommends weighing oneself no more than once a week, preferably less often than that.

Much of the casual research on emotional eating suggests that drinking more water or mint tea staves off emotional hunger (and thirst that can masquerade as hunger) as does going for a walk or otherwise distracting oneself from food.  Real hunger comes on slowly whereas emotional hunger can hit suddenly. Real hunger can be satisfied; emotional hunger creates an insatiable need.


Beyond recognizing harmful eating behaviors, tackling the emotional reasons that trigger the behavior is crucial. No diet or food plan will work without an awareness of the triggers. One recommendation is to make a list of triggers and where those triggers originated.

Many of us grew up with a scarcity mentality around food.  If we didn’t eat the dessert, that dessert may never be available again.  Hunger has nothing to do with this. With this attitude, one bite wouldn’t be sufficient; eating the entire dessert (or two) is needed.

Being a member of the coveted “Clean Plate Club” required that we eat and eat and eat, regardless of our hunger level.  Remember those starving children in China, Ethiopia or Bangladesh?  Clearly, we needed to pitch in and do our share by eating everything in sight.

Mindless vs Mindful Eating

Mindful eating helps us gain control of our emotional eating habits.  Eating slowly and deliberately focusing on the food rather than one’s phone or another device are important.  Eating in front of the television isn’t such a good idea. Zen teacher, author and cook, Edward Espé Brown wrote: “When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup."  Paraphrasing that same sentiment: when you eat dinner, just eat dinner.

No Miracles

None of us is immune from the occasional craving for a decadent dessert or loaf of bread.  Curing ourselves of emotional eating is not an overnight endeavor, nor is it an all or nothing proposal.  The guilt and shame over emotional eating may be more harmful than the eating itself.  We’re going to backslide; we’re going to succumb to the occasional chocolate cake (me); we’re going to forget to be mindful.  Instead of rubbing salt (or whipped cream) in the wound, let’s order up some forgiveness with a side of self-love.

“Most of us spend our lives protecting ourselves from losses that have already happened.”

---Geneen Roth (author of ten books on eating and emotions)