Why Do I Eat My Feelings?

It was a long day of meetings and phone calls at work. You get home and head straight to the snack pantry. Salty chips. I deserve these. You head to the couch, turn on the TV and before you know it the whole bag is gone. You were thinking of maybe going to spin class tonight, but now you feel sluggish and bloated from the chips.

Do you turn to food as a reward or as a remedy for stress? So do more than one-third (38 percent) of adults. 

woman crying eating food in bed

If it may seem hard to resist, there are a number of reasons why. Stress triggers higher cortisol levels in your bloodstream, which happen to increase hunger. This type of emotional reaction causes our bodies to crave energy-dense foods that are high in calories, sugar and fat. 

Instead of reaching for an avocado or blueberries, we reach for the bag of buttered popcorn or gummy worms. While the food distraction felt good, it was temporary.  And binging on junk food may cause more stress and anxiety, according to a study supported by the National Institute on Aging. After overeating unhealthy foods, almost half (49 percent) of adults feel disappointed in themselves and 46 percent feel bad about their bodies. Unfortunately, parts of our brains are rewarded for eating high-fat or high-sugar foods, so it’s hard to kick the habit.

Real hunger cues versus emotional cravings can sometimes be hard to decipher. But using this trick might help.

With real hunger, your body needs nutrients. You are not craving one particular food, so anything you like that is available will satisfy your hunger. When you finish eating, you won’t feel guilty.

Emotional hunger is triggered by a feeling. You crave a specific type of food, which is often high in calories and sugar. This hunger emerges suddenly and you feel the need to satisfy it quickly. You may feel guilty or ashamed after eating.

So, when your body feels hungry, ask yourself, “Would I eat a meal of salmon and broccoli right now?” If the answer is yes, you are physically hungry. If the answer is no, you are having an emotional craving.

Here are some ways to curb the habit of giving in to emotional hunger:

  • Keep a food diary.
  • Find ways to decrease stress (yoga, meditation, walking, etc.).
  • Check in with your hunger when a craving strikes. Give it time to pass.
  • Seek activities to fight boredom, like reading a book or taking a walk.
  • Get rid of the bag of chips that is taunting you. Purge your pantry.
  • Prepare healthy snack options, like almond butter and an apple.
  • Watch portion sizes. Avoid taking the whole bag of popcorn to the couch with you. Instead, put a snack-size amount in a bowl. 

So next time, after a long day of work, listen to your body’s signals. Are you hungry or feeding emotions? If you need a pre-workout snack, consider reaching for the Greek yogurt and mixed berries. Then call up a friend to meet you at that spin class you missed last week. By rewarding your body with nutritious foods and an endorphin-filled workout, your day may end on a better note.