Emotional eating is when people use food as a way to deal with feelings instead of to satisfy hunger. Emotional eating responds to feelings such as stress by eating foods high in carbohydrates and calories with low nutritional value. The total amount of food you eat, your attitude towards food, the way you balance your meals and snacks, and your personal eating habits can play a much larger role in emotional overeating than the specific foods you choose to eat. 

Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger means that you turn to food either to avoid uncomfortable emotions or to heighten a pleasurable one. Typically, it means that you eat based on how you feel, rather than what your body needs. Physical hunger means that you eat when your body signals to you that you are actually hungry.

Physical hunger:

  • comes on gradually and can be postponed
  • can be satisfied with any number of foods
  • means you’re likely to stop eating when full
  • doesn’t cause feelings of guilt

Emotional hunger:

  • feels sudden and urgent
  • causes very specific cravings (e.g., for pizza or ice cream)
  • you tend to eat more than you normally would
  • can cause guilt afterward

How To Handle Emotional Eating

  • If you’re bored or lonely, call or text a friend or family member.
  • If you’re stressed out, try a yoga routine. Or listen to some feel-good tunes and let off some steam by jogging in place, doing jumping jacks, or dancing around your room until the urge to eat passes.
  • If you’re tired, rethink your bedtime routine. Tiredness can feel a lot like hunger, and food won’t help if sleepless nights are causing daytime fatigue.
  • Write down what you ate, how much, and how you felt as you ate (e.g., bored, happy, worried, sad, mad) and whether you were really hungry or just eating for comfort.
  •  A walk or jog around the block or a quickie yoga routine may help in particularly emotional moments.
  • Simple deep breathing is meditation that you can do almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath — slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils.
  • Resist isolation in moments of sadness or anxiety. Even a quick phone call to a friend or family member can do wonders for your mood. There are also formal support groups that can help.

Instead of coming down hard, try learning from your setback. Use it as an opportunity to plan for the future. And be sure to reward yourself with self-care measures — taking a bath, going for a leisurely walk, and so on — when you make strides.