By Jan Tilley

Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger. It is often an overwhelming drive or desire to put a Band-Aid on our hurts and challenges. Unfortunately, the fix is temporary. Emotional eating ultimately makes things worse, fueling low self-esteem, and stirring feelings of anxiety and depression. To find out if you are an emotional eater, ask yourself:

Do feelings of anger, sadness or stress drive me to eat?
Do I turn to food for comfort or eat out of boredom?
Am I often in a state of extreme dieting or restricting?
Do I frequently eat to the point of feeling stuffed?
Do I feel the need to eat in secret?

Let’s explore five of the most common reasons for emotional eating with ideas on how to make healthy behavior changes to prevent “eating” your feelings:

1. Mindless eating
Emotional eating is often a direct result of simply not paying attention to what or why we eat.  It may be unconsciously eating large quantities of peanuts, crackers or M&M’s just because they are there. It may be planning a date with a very large bowl (or carton) of ice cream to make up for the lousy day you are having.  The solution is to eat mindfully, planning what and when you will eat. Avoid distraction — have a quiet, calm environment where you can really listen to your body. Your goal will be learning to stop eating when you are full rather than when the carton is gone.

2. Food is your main source of joy.
I often ask people what life would be like if they did not overeat or binge.  A common answer is, “I would have nothing to look forward to — emotional eating is my happy place.” Research suggests that sugar acts much like a drug, stimulating the release of opioids in our brains. For this reason, kicking the habit of emotional eating is not simply mustering the willpower to stop. The solution is to find more constructive ways to self-soothe.  To give up emotional eating entirely, you must also practice healthy ways to deal with difficult feelings, which brings us to #3.

3. Inability to tolerate difficult feelings
Bad feelings can be painful, and we learn early to do whatever it takes to avoid pain.  Unfortunately, many of our choice distractions are not always in our best interest.  While abuse of drugs and alcohol is frowned upon, eating can be seen as an acceptable alternative to dealing with uncomfortable emotions.  To conquer our need to use food to mask pain, we need to practice allowing ourselves to experience honest, authentic emotions. This is not an easy step. If you feel the need for professional support, seek the help of a therapist or dietitian to help you deal with difficult emotions in a constructive way.

4. Poor body image
Body hate and shame are among the biggest causes of emotional eating.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a strong, positive sense of self when negative body image and shame are present. To break the cycle, we must learn to respect and appreciate our body. Begin by surrounding yourself with positive messaging, friends and family who love you just the way you are. Make a list of things you love about yourself. Keep the list handy, and when you start to feel vulnerable, use the list to remind yourself of how amazing you really are!

5. Deprivation
Extreme food restriction or sleep deprivation can increase your vulnerability to emotional eating.  When deprived of food and sleep, we often experience an increased appetite and more powerful cravings.  To minimize your risk, aim for seven to eight hours of sleep every night, and eat every three hours throughout the day to avoid hunger.