Break free from emotional eating

Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can usually wait.

by Stacy Maxwell — 

Emotional eating is a significant contributor to the U.S. obesity epidemic. Some experts state that up to 75 percent of overeating is due to emotions. Let us take a look at the difference between emotional and physical hunger, eating triggers and some tools you can use to break free from the cycle of emotional eating.

What is the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger?

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, while physical hunger occurs gradually. When you are eating to fill a void that is not related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your need.

When you eat because you are actually hungry, you are open to options. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can usually wait.

Even when you are full, if you are eating to satisfy an emotional need, you are more likely to keep eating. When you are eating because you are hungry, you are more likely to stop when full. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when physically hungry does not.

Situations and emotions that trigger us to eat fall into five main categories:

1. Social — Eating in the company of other people or in social situations can be a trigger. For example, overeating can result from pressure from others, eating to fit in, being involved in an argument or from feelings of inadequacy around other people. Even fun social gatherings like parties and barbeques can result in overeating.

2. Emotional — Eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety or loneliness as a way to fill the void can cause serious overeating. This trigger is sometimes difficult to identify.

3. Situational — Eating because the opportunity is there, which can be triggered by such stimuli as a restaurant, food advertisement or even getting a whiff of your favorite delectable in a bakery. Eating may also be associated with certain activities like watching TV or going to the movies or a sporting event.

4. Thoughts — Eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating. For example, scolding oneself for looks or a lack of will power.

5. Physiological — Eating in response to physical cues. For example, increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain. Physiological triggers can also be positive when they help to identify actual physical hunger.

Becoming aware of situational eating habits is the first step in taking control of emotional eating. Start by using the “halt” technique before you eat. Of course, halt means “stop,” but take it a step further and ask yourself four questions before giving in and taking that first compulsive bite. Are you hungry or anxious and stressed? Perhaps lonely or tired?

Another approach is to become more in touch with your physical self. Before eating, ask yourself:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how physically hungry am I?
  • Do I still want to eat?
  • If the number is low, why do I want to eat?
  • If so, about how much?
  • What food would bring the most satisfaction and why?
  • As you eat, stop every now and then to reassess your hunger. Ask “am I still hungry?”

If the cause of overeating turns out to be emotional or situational, it is important to take action to resolve the issues involved. Discussing these issues with a trusted friend, doctor or perhaps a life coach can help free you from the vicious cycle of emotional eating.


Stacy Maxwell is a certified lifestyle educator and a nutrition and wellness coach at Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine Center in downtown Phoenix., 602-265-1774 or

AzNetNews, December 2010.

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