Emotional eating can be the reason why you aren’t fit

9 minutes reading time

Here’s a situation that probably sounds very familiar to you. Something upsets you very much and your body starts craving shitty foods. The craving is so huge that you simply have to eat – usually sugar or unhealthy fats.

A bowl of ice cream, pizza, French fries, a big pack of candy or a chocolate bar, they can all somehow offer you comfort when you have to deal with negative feelings. It’s called emotional eating and it can be the reason why you aren’t as fit as you could be.

In this article you will learn:

  • What emotional eating is
  • Why emotional eating happens at all
  • What you can do about it

There are four strong reasons why we emotionally eat at all. (1) When you eat, you psychologically feel more safe and sound, since food is necessary for survival and in the past, we didn’t always have such easy access to it. (2) Then there is the strong emotional connection between being fed and feeling loved.

And even more. (3) When you chew, you get rid of the negative energy surplus and, last but not least, (4) sugars have the ability to put your body in a drugged kind of state, because they help to release dopamine, the hormone of happiness. Many reasons for eating when you’re feeling negative emotions.

The problem lies in, of course, all the negative consequences of emotional eating. First of all, emotional eating usually happens when you aren’t even hungry for real. It happens when you’re upset. It’s a great distraction from your feelings. If you’re upset often, it can even go so far that you don’t distinguish between emotional and real hunger anymore. That means that you eat much more than you should.

The second issue is that shitty food is what calms you down best. As mentioned, it’s the dopamine release into your system. But that also means an intake of additional sugar and unhealthy fats. The more unhealthy fats and sugars you eat, the more your body gets used and addicted to them. It’s like a drug, you need more and more of it.

In the long term, that means that even small emotional issues can make you eat huge amounts of unhealthy sugars and fats. Because you need more and more. And as you know, too much unhealthy foods lead to many potential health issues. It’s like digging yourself a grave with a spoon.

Last but not least, emotional eating makes you fat. It’s simple math. 7,700 calories (kcal) equal one kg of fat. Or 3,500 calories equal one pound of fat. One king-sized Snickers bar has around 500 calories. Usually it’s not even enough to calm you down, if you’re really hungry.

You only need to eat two king-sized Snickers bars per week, caused by being emotionally upset, and you gain an additional pound of fat in a month, assuming you meet your recommended daily calories intake with other meals. If it’s something that regularly happens in your life, that’s 12 new pounds of fat per year (5,5 kg).

It really sucks that the strongest food cravings usually occur when you are emotionally upset and weak, but that is how things unfortunately are. Below is a list of emotionally tough situations that may cause you to emotionally overeat. When you find yourself in that kind of situations in life (and you will) make sure you observe your eating habits very closely.

  • Conflicts and fights (spouse, family, friends etc.)
  • Insecurities and feelings of inferiority
  • Work stress and work deadlines
  • Health issues (your own or of your loved ones)
  • Financial problems
  • Boredom and loneliness
  • Depression and confusion
  • Fatigue and frustration
  • Resentment
  • Business travel
  • Social pressure
  • Small daily irritations
  • Loss
  • Changes in life

Now what can you do about it?

Emotional eating

Become aware of emotional eating

The first important step is to become aware of emotional eating. You have to observe yourself and carefully distinguish between grabbing a meal because you’re really hungry and eating because of emotional hunger.

Just observe your own behavior. What happens when someone upsets you? Someone close to you – a friend, coworker, spouse, etc.? Your boss? What happens when you have a deadline or you have too much work to do? When do you eat more than usual? When do spikes happen?

Don’t be fooled, emotional hunger can be triggered by little things, like when your spouse doesn’t call you or sends you the message that you expected, you spill coffee or you didn’t get an invitation for a party or whatever.

The small things for which you aren’t aware of how they upset you can be the most dangerous ones. It’s easy to recognize emotional eating when something really bad happens to you and as an exception, you overeat yourself. But the small irritations that cause you to eat that additional chocolate bar are the trickiest ones.

Small daily irritations you are usually not even completely aware of and cause you to eat that additional chocolate bar are the trickiest ones.

The obvious thing is that if you want to recognize emotional eating, you have to be constantly aware of your emotions and small changes in them. You will quickly see the patterns of when you eat a meal only to calm yourself down and offer yourself a little bit of comfort. It happens to all of us. You just have to become aware of it. When you’re aware of it, you can start managing it.

The ultimate thing you can do is try to find a correlation between your happiness index and your calorie intake. If you track your calories with an app and if you tag how happy you are on the happiness index chart every day, you can simply compare different days to see if you consume any more calories on the days when you aren’t in a very good mood.

If you need more indicators and signs of emotional eating to identify it, here are five frequent signs of emotional hunger:

  1. It usually happens outside of your standard meal times (eating at unusual times)
  2. Your hunger feels like a volcano that erupts, it’s urgent and sudden and unstoppable
  3. You want to eat a lot, much more than you normally would
  4. You crave shitty food, especially sugars and unhealthy fats
  5. You often feel guilty afterwards

If you sometimes still have a problem with distinguishing real hunger from the emotional one, here is a simple test you can always do.

Life experiment ideas

A simple test to distinguish emotional hunger from real hunger

Imagine a really healthy food you like, without sugars or fats (fruit doesn’t count, except for avocado). Preferably a green vegetable – broccoli, spinach, salad, whatever. If you feel real hunger, you will have no problem eating your favorite green vegetable.

But if you just go “no, no”, I want pizza, a chocolate bar, French fries, chips or whatever, you’re probably not really hungry. It’s emotional hunger.

How to deal with emotional eating

Now you have enough knowledge to be aware of emotional eating. Feel your emotions instead of suppressing them and consequently relaxing your body with shitty food. There’s nothing wrong with negative feelings, they’re just a sign that you need to fix something in your life, same as how a body pain indicates that something is wrong with your body. Learn to listen to your emotions.

After you become aware of emotional eating, you want to start managing it. As the saying goes: unhealthy food stays only a moment on your lips (to calm you down), but forever on your hips. In other words, overeating emotionally is not worth it.

There are several ways how you can trick unhealthy emotional eating, so it doesn’t lead to you getting more fat in life. Let’s look at a few things you can do.

Don’t eat when you’re upset

The best thing you can do is to simply not eat when you’re emotionally upset. If you know the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger, it’s quite a simple process. You are aware that you aren’t really hungry, only upset, and so you decide not to eat, but instead direct your excess of negative energy into a different kind of activity.

Here are just a few ideas for how you can turn a negative habit (emotional eating) into a positive one:

  • Do self-reflection to figure out why you feel as upset as you do
  • Go for a walk
  • Listen to music
  • Meditate
  • Talk to a friend
  • Do exercise
  • Do a few yoga poses
  • Get a massage
  • Stretch
  • Do anything else that is much healthier than stuffing your face with unhealthy food

If you’re a little bit upset, it’s an easy thing to do. If you are aware of what is happening as mentioned before. And it can bring magical results to your weight. You’ll see. A much bigger problem is when you’re really upset. I mean really really upset. So upset that you just can’t control yourself and your habits. What to do then?

Eat semi-healthy food

If you’re just too upset and the urge to eat is just too strong, then eat. Only don’t eat shitty food. Eat healthier food packed with sugars and healthy fats. It’s definitely a better choice than the shittiest food that exists. I call them safe high foods. Or, sometimes, emergency health packages. They aren’t the healthiest choice, but still better than pizza and candy bars.

Here are some of them:

  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Peanut butter
  • Greek yogurt
  • Hummus
  • Cottage cheese
  • Protein bar

You know, when you’re emotionally upset, it’s not so much about the shitty food, it’s more about the sugar intake and chewing on something. And of course you choose something you like, so you feel like a baby that got that toy. You’ll achieve the same effect with semi-healthy foods you like.

Your source of calories for emotional eating will be better in such a case, but there is still a problem of the calorie surplus. There is also a simple thing you can do to solve it.

Skip a meal the next day

To balance your calories intake and not be in a calorie surplus, simply skip a meal the next day. And make sure you don’t eat more with other meals. If one day you really overeat yourself to death, make sure you balance that the next day. It shouldn’t be that hard to do, really.

Usually, you’re still quite sated from the previous day of overeating. You should be more calm, since you comforted yourself with food and overslept the problem. And if you see the benefits of building up self-discipline when you skip a meal, doing it should be piece of cake for you to do it.

Healthy eating

When you are upset, don’t eat shitty food. Go for a salad and it’s awesome jokes.

To sum up, there are the two things you can do when emotional hunger attacks you:

  • When you are just a little bit upset: Find a healthier way to manage negative feelings (take a walk, exercise, listen to music etc.)
  • When you just have to eat: Eat safe high foods + skip a meal the next day

How not to manage emotional eating

There are several ways of how you can additionally damage yourself if you don’t manage emotional eating properly. Make sure you avoid this kind of mismanagement of emotional eating.

Negative spiral

With emotional eating, there is a nasty negative spiral that can you fall into. You get upset, you overeat, you feel guilty, and because you feel guilty you eat even more. You see where this is going. Don’t do that to yourself. If you’ve overeaten, forgive yourself and remember that tomorrow is a new beginning. With a fresh start, you can fix the unhealthy behavior.

Don’t punish yourself. When you fail at following your desired behavior, correct it with your next decision. And remember, nobody can be disciplined 100 % of the time.

Switching to other unhealthy habits

You can decide not to overeat when you’re upset, and then turn to even more unhealthy habits. Drinking, smoking and taking drugs are just a few examples. You can even do both, overeat and try to additionally suppress your feelings with other unhealthy addictions.

The damage is, of course, double. What you want is to switch from emotional eating to a healthy habit, not to an even more unhealthy one. Interestingly, it can also often happen the other way around. You overeat to get rid of an addiction more easily. For example, when people stop smoking, they start to overeat.

Overtraining as punishment

If you overeat, exercising the same day is a great way to correct your mistake. If you do exercise when you’re upset instead of overeating at all, perfect. But there is another thing that can happen and that has devastating consequences.

You can never out-train your bad diet.

You may overeat, feel guilty and decide to train so much that you get every single surplus of calories out of your body. The problem is: you can never out-train your diet. It takes minutes to eat a chocolate bar and an hour to burn the same amount of calories.

If you ate two chocolate bars, for example, you may decide to train for two hours just to get calories out. But if you’re a newbie and you body is not yet strong enough to exercise for so long, you can only hurt yourself by overtraining. It’s different, of course, if you’re a professional athlete and you know what you’re doing, but that’s rarely the case.

I have seen may people who decide to stick to healthier habits and when they slip, they punish themselves and try to make up for the bad decision. Don’t do that. Don’t punish yourself and don’t try to make it up by pushing yourself into the danger zone, you’re only going to hurt yourself.


When it happens the next time

Now you know that there is real hunger and emotional hunger. Now you know that emotional hunger exists and so you can start managing it. The very next time you’re upset, observe yourself to see what you do with the excess of negative energy.

If you find yourself overeating, start experimenting with different kinds of healthy habits that you could apply instead of succumbing to unhealthy food. If you decrease 500 calories per week by that, you will lose a pound of fat in a few weeks. Calculate how much you can lose in a year, as long as you only learn how to manage emotional hunger. So …

  • Prepare a list healthy habits that could be a substitute for emotional overeating
  • Know where to buy safe high foods or always have them with you
  • Skip a meal the next day after overeating yourself

And when you see someone overeating because they’re upset, take them for a walk and talk to them. You will strengthen your relationship and have a closer friend who can do the same for you when you get upset and have to resist the unhealthy calorie temptation.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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