Emotional Eating

Emotional Eating

Do you often eat until you feel stuffed?

Do you frequently indulge in your favourite food when stressed out?

Do you see yourself getting cravings that are out of control where you literally can’t think of anything else until you eat what you are craving?

Do you see yourself heading to your favourite breakfast after a moderate workout or exercise?

You aren’t hungry enough to eat a healthy meal, but you are definitely interested in diving into your favourite restaurant for your favourite food?

Finally, Do you feel powerless or out of control around food? Do you indulge in your favourite food only because it is available?

These are some of the symptoms of what is amongst the biggest causes of increased weight or obesity –Emotional Eating.

Paul McKenna, a celebrated author in the area of weight management, has done extensive research for over 15 years on why people cannot sustain weight loss and found that emotional eating is the number one cause of unsustainable weight loss, obesity and weight related issues.

Only 1% of the world’s population has been able to lose over 15 kilograms and sustain a weight loss over 5 years. One of the most important reasons why people aren’t able to sustain the weight loss is emotional eating.

Normally a feeling triggers thoughts, which translate to behaviours and actions. Emotional Eating refers to eating comfort foods that are calorie dense and nutrition deficient, due to feelings rather than hunger.

Feelings can range from negative emotions such as one-off traumatic experience to everyday stressors such as exercise and target deadlines.

An emotion works a bit like someone knocking on your door to deliver a message. If the message is urgent, the knock is loud, if it is very urgent the knock gets louder; if it is very urgent and you don’t answer the door, the knock keeps getting louder until you open the door or the door is broken. Either way, the emotion will continue to come up until it has done its job. As soon as you ‘open the door’ by listening to the emotional message and taking appropriate action, the emotion goes away.

When these episodes occur about three to four times a week to about once a day or more, it is considered emotional eating.

How do we identify emotional eating?

Emotional hunger can be powerful.

As a result, very often people mistake it for physical hunger. For example, when a person indulges in moderate exercise such as an hour-long walk or even a moderately intense exercise of an hour of zumba or a work out at the gym, after the exercise, one sees many people reaching for food. Physiologically, the body needs nothing more than water. The body is in fat-burning mode and hence the hunger pang that is experienced is essentially the need for water. The body’s glycogen levels are also sufficient to hold up to 3-4 hours of similar forms of exercise. In these conditions, physiologically we should not be feeling hungry. However, there is a strong urge to eat something, which, can be considered as emotional eating. Emotional eating, in this situation, is in response to performing an activity that takes a person out of their comfort zone. Seeking food and comfort is the response to this. For some, it could also be a sense of gratification or a celebration for having finished a task, achieving a milestone or a target.

There are clues that could help us distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.

  • Emotional hunger comes suddenly. It hits us in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent and needs to be satisfied immediately. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as a dire need or demand instant satisfaction (unless we haven’t eaten for a very long time and the body is in famished mode)
  • Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When we are physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves for quick digesting foods, fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush of energy. We feel like having our favourite breakfasts, desserts, fast foods and other high calorie food and nothing else will do
  • Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before we know it, we have finished a whole bag of chips or an entire packet of popcorn without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When we eat in response to physical hunger, we are typically more aware of what we are doing
  • Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once we are full. We keep tending to want more and more, often eating until we are uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. We feel satisfied when our stomach is full
  • Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling tummy or a hunger pang in the stomach, we feel hunger as a craving we can’t get out of our head. Our sensory organs become active. We tend to visualise pictures, feel the sensation of the food in our throat, mouth and tongue; we can recall the smell and textures of the food as if it is in front of us. The experience is very vivid and gets more intense with time.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When we eat to satisfy physical hunger, we are unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because we are giving the body what it needs. We are “eating to live”. If we feel guilty after we eat, it’s likely because we know deep down that we have not eaten for nutritional reasons. Further, we tend to satisfy our conscience by saying “we are foodies”, “food is meant to be enjoyed” and other justifications

Common Causes of Emotional Eating

  • Stress – Stress impacts the mind as well as other areas like the immune system, gut, etc. When stress occurs in a fast-paced world, it leads to the release of a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone triggers cravings for quick digesting foods (breads, cakes, South Indian breakfasts, etc.), high-fat foods (oily snacks like bajjis/chocolates/desserts, etc.) — foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled the stresses are in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief as it provides comfort. It therefore starts a vicious cycle of weight gain, immunity related issues and various metabolic syndromes
  • Stuffing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the emotions you’d rather not feel for that period of time. Unfortunately, the relief is temporary and the episodes reoccur depending on the intensity and the frequency of the emotions
  • Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom or as a way to fill a void in your life? Often we see these habits in homemakers who are alone at home and have some free time in between different chores or people who are going through a life or career transition. When people experience feelings of ‘emptiness’ or a void in their lives, food becomes a great way to occupy their thoughts for that period of time. It distracts them from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with life
  • Childhood habits and habit formations – Our equation with food starts when we are in the womb. As babies, many times we could have been given a bottle of milk in response to our cry, even though we were not actually hungry at that point of time. We pick up the habit of using food as a comfort and many times these habits stay on till adulthood. As children, many of us have grown up to know food as a “reward” for good work that we have done or for good behaviour. For example, ice cream or chocolate is the reward for completing homework or for getting good grades. These emotionally based childhood eating habits often carry over into adulthood. Some of us have grown up having popcorn, soft drinks and snacks while watching movies or during other recreational activities. These habits continue into adulthood. Some of our eating is also driven by “nostalgia” – cherishing childhood memories of eating certain foods or eating in certain eateries as celebrations, family reunions, etc.
  • Social influences – Getting together with friends, family and others for a meal is a great way to socialise, unwind and de-stress, but it can also lead to overeating and emotional eating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating and it is often comfortable to be a part of a group. Sometimes, we also tend to overeat in social situations to keep ourselves busy or because we like to address other emotions such as anxiety, nervousness, etc. In India, one often sees the host persuading guests to overeat as the amount of food consumed validates the quality of cooking or the spread. In India, eating less is disrespectful to the host. Friends and family also encourage us to overeat and often one is ridiculed for adopting healthy lifestyle practices and it’s easier to go along with the group than stand apart
  • Celebrations and happy occasions – While emotional eating helps reduce the impact of the negative emotions for that short period, one sees that food being used as a tool to address happy emotions of celebrations, gratification, happiness, relaxation, comfort etc. Normally, we find office goers indulging in comfort foods at the end of a work (from 6–7 pm to later in the evening). Watching TV and eating favourite foods are a great way to unwind and relax. The weekend for a lot of working people starts from a Friday evening and extends to Sunday. We look for avenues to give us gratification and happiness; and food is increasingly become a popular source of satisfying positive emotions, cutting across different segments and strata of the society

How Our Daily Nutrition Can Increase The Episodes of Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is not whimsical. Scientific experiments have proven that emotions affect hunger and the satiety signals that the gut sends to the brain; these play a crucial role in driving an emotionally disturbed person to high fat and/or high carbohydrate foods. Therefore, a person starts eating these foods to meet their psychological needs. But soon the cure becomes worse than the disease, sugar and insulin spikes caused by the foods, eaten for psychological need; create physiological cravings, which are more difficult to wish away. So the solution is to find a healthy means to address these emotional needs.

Balanced meals and physical activity go a long way in preventing the need for emotional eating.

How Do Following “Diets”, “Diet Fads” and “Diet Regimes” Aggravate Emotional Eating?

Familiarity is a human being’s strongest basic instinct as researched by many psychologists and professionals in behavioural therapy. Food tastes and habits have their genesis in genes and many times start in the womb. When we start a diet regime, which is alien to us, it starts with stress, feeling of being deprived of the familiar lifestyle and it is “will power” that is used. The stress continues to build and with time (depending on the intensity of stress and one’s will power), we give in and let go of the diet regime. At that point, the feeling of deprivation is so intense that we rebound and overindulge in our favourite comfort foods. So, the weight that has been lost is regained very quickly and we gain much more of it. The sad news is that physiologically – when we lose weight, we lose muscle and when we gain weight, we gain fat. This leads to a reduced metabolism and other psychological issues like bad programming– Weight loss is difficult, you feel worthless, your self-esteem is low and you are frustrated at not being able to achieve your goals.

How does sleep affect emotional eating and weight gain?

Partial sleep deprivation or low quality sleep; makes a person fat through the following mechanisms:

  1. Increases the hunger hormone called leptin. When leptin goes up, we tend to crave quick digesting foods.
  2. Decreases the satiating hormone (hormone that makes you feel full) called leptin. We tend to continuously look for satiety through comfort foods.
  3. It drives the sleep-deprived person towards carbohydrate-laden foods.
  4. Prevents the night time drop of stress hormone, which reduces the quality of sleep.

Much as everyone would love to get a full quota of daily sleep, which is seven to nine hours, depending on the age, partial sleep deprivation is a fact of present day life. So countering its ill effects may be easier than trying to correct the sleep. The following steps can ameliorate these ill effects to a great extent, like:

  1. Less quantity and quality of sleep does maximum damage during childhood. Physical activity for better sleep, as opposed to calorie burning, is an easy and feasible option.
  2. A balanced diet can keep away the carbohydrate-laden foods and therefore reduces the incidences of emotional eating.
  3. If required time of sleep is not feasible, do meditation. 15 minutes spent in meditation is equal to 1 hour of quality sleep.
  4. If quality of sleep and not the bedtime is a constraint, an evening brisk walk helps solve the problem. Walking or any moderate physical activity can improve the happy hormone (Serotonin), which contributes very effectively to moving out stressful conditions and reduces the chance of emotional eating.

Some methods we can use to get over emotional eating:


Have balanced meals that are low in glycemic index (GI): Having a balanced meal, which is low in GI and low in insulin generation, reduces “carbohydrate shocks” in the body, which in turn reduces cravings, physiologically and therefore reduces emotional eating.

Eat as per the hunger scale: The hunger scale ranges from

  1. Physically faint
  2. Ravenous
  3. Fairly hungry
  4. Slightly hungry
  5. Neutral
  6. Pleasantly satisfied
  7. Full
  8. Stuffed
  9. Bloated
  10. Nauseous

1 is the highest form of hunger and 10 is the extreme condition of fullness. Eating when we are between 4 and 5 will automatically make us eat less and we tend to look at healthy and conscious choices. When we are in 1 and 2 and to some extent 3, we tend to look for quick digesting foods, which are calorie dense and nutrition deficient that go into the bloodstream quickly. We also tend to eat very quickly and therefore tend to eat more than our normal appetite. Normally if we eat a balanced meal consisting of low glycemic food, low insulin generating foods and adequate protein and fibres, we would get to stage 4/stage 5 in 3 to 4 hours after the previous meal depending on gender, body constitution etc.

Eating adequately about a couple of hours before a celebration or a feast can reduce the incidence of emotional eating considerably.


Learn to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger: Calibrate yourself if the hunger is physical or emotional through methods that have been mentioned above. Often we aren’t aware of such issues and if we do know of them, sometimes we are in a state of self denial and most importantly many of us, especially in the 20s and 30s are “self confessed foodies” and are proud of it and hence justify the eating. Often, not bothering about the waistline and the fat developing in the body. We can choose to intelligently eat food and not put on weight if we are aware of the type of hunger.

Put up stickers and notes in front of your snack cupboard/refrigerator/of other favourite food storage area:“Am I really hungry or do I just want to change the way I feel?” These work as reminders to help us understand what we are eating for. Chances are that this reminder will change our thought process and give us a reality check.

Stop getting into emotions of guilt, shame and other negative emotions: Often, we indulge in emotional eating to the extent that we feel full, heavy, stuffed and nauseous. These feelings can trigger another episode of guilt, shame and thereafter it could trigger another episode of emotional eating. Let go of what has happened and don’t carry the emotions forward. “Tomorrow is another day”.

Eat consciously: As per research, emotional eaters ironically think of food on most occasions except when they are actually indulging in the activity of eating. If we eat very fast, we tend to eat a lot more, because the mind and the stomach take their time to signal “fullness”. While eating, we often indulge in other activities like talking to others and watching TV. At times, we often experience negative emotions of not being able to control our eating habits and therefore “are not present while indulging in an activity”. As a result, we do not feel fully satisfied with the meal and look for another occasion to eat again. Eating slowly, consciously bite by bite and with concentration, consciousness and presence will reduce the amount of intake by half or more. It also gives us the feeling of satisfaction and satiety.

Identify distracters that can contribute to positive emotions: Identify activities that help improving the state of mind and contribute positivity to reduce the stressor. Walking, deep breathing or changing the breathing pattern, yoga, meditation or indulging in other moderate physical activities or even going for an occasional Spa therapy can help get over the stress condition. Scientifically designed mind processes help to get over emotional eating sustainably:

Take help of a professional who can transition you to a healthy active lifestyle seamlessly: When we make changes to our lifestyle for better health, we go through discomfort. Taking help from a professional coach to help transition into the desired lifestyle sustainably and seamlessly has been proven to be a game changer. Following diet fads and doing quick fixes will only worsen these issues.

Become aware of your stressors and your responses to them: Start becoming aware of the issues that cause stress and your response to them. Once these are identified, there are scientific tools such as “havening” to get over emotional eating at that point. Also, there are many professionals who can help one get over the concerned stress or help deal with the stress differently or help look at these issues from a different perspective or perceive a different reality.

Use scientifically designed mind process to break childhood patterns: Childhood patterns of eating / comfort that might have been formed in the womb or over time, do generally require some scientific mind patterns. These patterns are sustainable and user friendly. They offer flexibility for us as individuals and increase the number of choices for us in any given situation. Let me illustrate this better. If I am an emotional eater, every time I am stressed, I tend to look for a chocolate cake or a comfort food that I have been used to, in the past. There is an automatic reaction (in the mind) that takes place in response to the situation. By automatic reactions I mean, I see the picture of the cake or the comfort food in my mind vividly or I can feel the sensations in my mouth, throat etc., and these sensations get more intense. The intensity of the sensations and the kind of sensations that happen in the body are person specific. These sensations happen until I am only thinking of it and finally get it and eat it. Alternatively, if I see a chocolate cake or my favourite comfort food available in front of me, my senses automatically get active and these become more intense until I pick it up and eat. These are automatic responses and at that time, we do not check our hunger levels and we give ourselves no choice but to pick it up. Through professional help, we can break the “automatic response”. We don’t need to any longer look for food as comfort; we can also eat our favourite foods out of choice depending on hunger levels and other criteria. I therefore have choices available for me versus “no choice”. I can choose to not eat the chocolate cake at that time, as I am not hungry or eat later or eat little bit or eat the whole. The decisions of eating become more rational rather than being over powered by emotions or surrendering to it.

Our Service Offerings:

  • The success rate of sustainability of weight loss and the ability to follow an appropriate nutrition plan is as low as 1%. Using scientific mind and body processes, we can improve it many fold.
  • Emotional eating, stress eating, binge eating and cravings are the biggest reasons for unsustainable weight loss. We identify the issue accurately and help you move out of the condition comfortably with scientific mind and body processes.
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