Common Emotional Eating Triggers and How to Manage Them

[This article was originally featured on on August 22, 2017]

I grew up in an Italian family, which equated to food being everywhere, all the time. And, lots of it!  We were a family of four and my mom always cooked as if there were 12 of us at the dinner table. Why? Leftovers or emotional eating?

We live in a society where this is common. Whether you grew up in a family like mine or not, there is typically an abundance of food in our culture. And, there is also an abundance of issues with it.

We don’t just eat because we are hungry. We also practice emotional eating. Experts agree that emotional eating is one of the leading reasons it’s so difficult to lose weight. [1] [2]

We’ve heard the term, but what exactly is emotional eating? I describe it as eating for reasons other than hunger. Yes, that’s general and simplistic but for this article, let’s keep it that way. Do you try to lose weight and continue to eat for purposes other than physical hunger?

Chances are you’re eating for “emotional” reasons and you’ll have trouble losing weight. So, what triggers emotional eating? It varies by individual, but here are common triggers experienced by emotional eaters. [3] [4]

Uncomfortable Emotions

Negative emotions don’t feel good, so we tend to ignore them, push them aside, or try to avoid them. Using food to numb uncomfortable feelings is one of many ways people avoid them.

When we feel anger, hurt, resentment or sadness arise, we reach for the bag of potato chips or the pint of ice cream instead of allowing our emotion to be felt.

The numbing with food is only a temporary solution. The negative emotions will return if we don’t deal with them. What often results if we don’t deal with them is a cycle of emotional eating. [5] [6]

Stress Causes Emotional Eating

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my clients say they’re under a lot of pressure at work and because of that they are eating poorly. Stress is another big trigger of emotional eating. Our body’s response to stress or a threat increases hormones – adrenaline and cortisol[7]

As many of you know, adrenaline triggers our fight or flight response. When the adrenal glands kick in and adrenaline pumps through our bodies, we physically feel it. Our heart rate increases and blood pressure rises as blood is pumped more rapidly through our body. This also happens when you perform exercises in Shift Shop.

You can feel the lingering effects of an adrenaline rush (especially consistent adrenaline rushes) via tension in your neck and shoulders, amongst many other things. [8]

One way we manage these feelings of stress is to eat. And, chances are we’re not reaching for the raw veggies. Why not? First, we don’t often associate fresh vegetables with foods that make us “feel better” (although physically they may, emotionally they do not.) [9]

Also, the stress response also increases the level of cortisol in our bodies and excess cortisol creates cravings for sweet and salty food. So, we again, reach for the bag of potato chips or nachos, or something sweet to ease those cravings and ease our tension. [10]

Comfort Eating 

Maybe you grew up in a family where food was a soother. Did your mom offer you a hot fudge sundae or a trip to the ice cream shop if you had a bad day at school?

Did your friends come over with a gallon of ice cream when your high school boyfriend broke up with you?  [11]

Food is something that can be of comfort to us. Who doesn’t love a bowl of hot soup or a mug of frothy hot chocolate on a cold winter day? However, when we continually look to food to provide us with comfort when we are suffering or going through a difficult time.

We can get caught in the cycle of unhealthy emotional eating. The food will never provide you with the pure comfort you desire. That can only come from within. [12]

Boredom Eating

Another big trigger for emotional eating is boredom. Having open time or feeling unmotivated often gives us a reason to reach for food to fill the gap.

This can be a habit too. If you’re home with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, you might decide to binge watch your favorite show AND grab a bag of chips to join you. [13]

Before you know it, your three shows in and the bag is gone, not because you were hungry but because you were bored and not paying attention to what you were consuming.  You were feeling empty from the boredom and food was the habitual answer to deal with that feeling. [14]

All these triggers are emotional. You are using food to numb, avoid, or cover up something you don’t want to feel (hence, the triggers prompt emotional eating.) And, these triggers are very common.

Unfortunately, they not only make it hard to lose weight but also create feelings of shame, guilt, and self-hatred. Emotional eating causes us to beat ourselves up and be excessively self-critical. This can then lead to more emotional eating.

It becomes an unhealthy cycle. But, there are ways to deal with the triggers and stop the cycle. [15]

Managing Emotional Eating Triggers

I will share a process to help you manage any of these triggers that might cause you to eat emotionally. The biggest thing to mention first is that emotional eating is usually mindless eating. You aren’t paying attention to the physical cues from your body so you eat for reasons other than physical hunger and can also eat to excess.  [16]

You’re going to pay attention to how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally before, during, and after you eat. [17]

Why Can’t I Stop Eating Based on Emotion?

This is about recognizing when you’re feeling an uncomfortable emotion that is causing you to head for the pantry.  Did you just have an argument with a loved one and are feeling angry or hurt?

State it – either aloud or to yourself: I’m feeling hurt. I’m feeling angry.  When you name and claim your emotion, you honor it, and, it begins to lose its power over you. [18]

How to Stop Eating Because of Emotions

This can be the most difficult part. Who likes feeling angry, hurt, or sad?  No one. But this is what you’re trying to cover up with your emotional eating. There’s the discomfort of being bored, hurt, or stressed.

Pay attention to how you feel and WHY you want to eat, (physical hunger vs. something else); you’ll recognize the emotion that you DON’T want to feel and then, feel it. [19]

Emotions are energy in motion (e-motion). They need to be considered so they can move through your body. When you allow them to be felt, they run through your body and don’t get stuck there.

If you let the emotion be felt by simply sitting with it until the feeling passes (and trust me, it will pass). Some take longer than others and some need to be “felt” many times over. You will be less likely to grab the box of milk duds from the pantry. [20]

How to Control Emotions While Eating

Everything we do in life is a choice –  your health, your nutrition, your LIFE – each moment is a choice.  As you recognize and claim your uncomfortable emotion or situation, you get to choose how you’re going to deal with it. You can continue to numb it with food, or you can do something else. The choice is always yours to make. [21]

Practice Mindful Eating

If you are starving, then eat! That’s the basic principle of mindful eating. And, pay attention while you’re eating to the cues from your body. It’ll let you know when you’ve had enough. And then you reach another choice point – you can stop eating when your body is finished, or you can continue.

It’s always up to you. Also, note how you’re feeling when you’re done eating. This is another indicator as to whether you listened to physical cues from your body regarding what to eat and how much to eat. [22] [23]

How to Stop Emotional Eating

Some emotional eating triggers run deeper than you are aware. Sure, you can take the tips in this article and begin to make significant strides, but if you continue to struggle, do yourself a favor and get support from a professional.

Emotional eating is not only one of the leading reasons it’s so difficult to lose weight but is also a significant cause for shame and self-loathing. We are our own worst critics and don’t need another item on the “self-criticize” list.  Remember, you deserve to have a healthy relationship with food and live a healthy thriving life.  Don’t let emotional eating get in your way!


For more information and thoughts on this important topic, visit 


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