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  • Writer's pictureBrittany Pray

How To Stop Emotional Eating & Emotional Starvation

woman emotional eating donuts

Emotional Eating/Starvation

Have you ever let your emotions or stress get the better of you and you end up “eating your emotions?" You go a little bit overboard (or maybe a lot overboard) and you don’t even really realize what happened? You are NOT alone. OR maybe you’re the opposite, when you’re feeling emotional or stressed out you just feel like you physically can’t eat anything. You also are not alone.

Both of these – emotional eating and emotional starvation – are common and are perfectly normal. I’m sure most of you, if you’re anything like me, after you overeat because you’re emotional or stressed out, you think “why did I do that. I’m such a bad person. Why can’t I just stick to my diet?” The #1 thing I want you to know is that it is a normal thing and that it definitely does NOT make you a bad person. We can understand this and then take steps to make better decisions more often than not (also understanding that we are human and will never be 100% perfect).

Why does emotional eating happen?

There are actual reasons why we turn to food when we’re feeling emotional or stressed. There are emotional, physiological, and physical reasons why. When you’re in an emotional state – it could be ANY emotion – anger, happiness, sadness – food can be a great outlet. We often use food for celebration (ex: cake at a birthday party) BUT we also use food to cope with some negative emotions – being sad, stressed, angry – why? Because it provides comfort, it’s reliable, predictable, and because we have history to draw from.

Most of us have spent years conditioning ourselves to use food as an outlet. This is not inherently wrong, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. When we eat delicious foods our body produces feel-good neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. When you’re in the heat of the emotion and you go after the food and eat it, then you feel good for a second because of that dopamine and serotonin hit, but that’s temporary and it wears off. Then you’re like wow! I felt good for a second, I want to feel good again, and you end up eating more.

This also becomes an “autopilot” situation, where we’re not entirely present and mindful when we’re eating out of emotion. Usually, we’re still thinking about what happened that put us into that emotional state or thinking about the future and what’s going to happen. This takes us out of the present moment and eating then becomes an automatic behavior that is coming from a place of mindlessness instead of mindfulness.

We have, therefore, been conditioned through this neurological chemical reaction that happens, but also through habit and repetition.

Every habit is created the same way: there’s a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. The more we have this trigger-behavior-reward response repeated, the more it becomes automatic.

Physically, there’s another reason that we turn to food when we’re feeling emotional. When we are under periods of stress, cortisol and adrenaline are higher and serotonin is lower. Eating in this situation makes sense because one tool that we have to flip these levels around and decreased the cortisol and adrenaline and increase the serotonin levels is carbohydrates. Essentially, eating makes us feel better. But, again, it’s a temporary fix.

BUT, why does emotional starvation happen?

When you’re stressed out your sympathetic nervous system is activated and your parasympathetic nervous system is essentially shut off. The sympathetic nervous system is what we like to call “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic nervous system is “rest and digestion.” It makes sense, then, that when our nervous system that prioritizes digestion is turned off because of being in a stressed-out state, eating food doesn’t sound appetizing. It can even make some people sick because we’re just not in a state to be digesting the food we’re eating.

What to do to stop Emotional Eating?

#1 - The MOST IMPORTANT thing is to understand that it’s going to happen.

Acceptance and awareness are super important! If you feel bad about yourself every single time it happens, you’ll end up in the same cycle over and over again. No more adding insult to injury by feeling guilty for emotional eating. Instead, understand that it is normal, why it happens, and then take the steps below to improve next time! Our goal is to intervene as much as possible to re-wire our neurological pattern so that it becomes a conscious choice and we are able to make better decisions more often than not.

#2 – Pull yourself into the present moment.

Bring attention to the moment by pausing or delaying the action of eating. (Please note, this does NOT mean that you won’t choose to eat it.) Say you had a stressful day and you’re headed to the pantry for the package of cookies – instead, pause and put the food down, leave the kitchen and take 5 minutes to connect with the moment. Do some deep breathing or any activity that will stop you from just continuing to think about your stress and/or emotions.

Those neurons that have been firing the same way for years now aren’t firing the same way because you’ve interrupted the process – it is no longer an automatic action and you can make a CONSCIOUS choice! Most of the time if you pause and delay the action of chowing down on the cookies, you’ll realize that you’re not really even that hungry, you’re just really stressed out or emotional. The KEY here is having something else as a way to manage these emotions.

#3 – Develop alternative outlets AHEAD OF TIME!

If we don’t have an alternative outlet for our emotions, we will continue to rely on the one we have always relied on (ex: the cookies). Therefore, we want an alternative outlet that we can turn to after we have interrupted the automatic action. The outlets that work for each person can vary greatly but some popular ones include: going for a walk, getting outside, playing with your dog/cat, listening to music, reading, journaling, stretching/yoga, meditation, and so on.

Make sure that you pick TWO!! Why 2? Because what if your outlet is to go for a walk outside and at the moment that you’re emotional it’s storming outside? Well, now you can’t do that and your only option available to you is the cookies!

This is why you need to pick 2 and know what they are AHEAD OF TIME! At the moment you won’t be thinking clearly because of the emotional/stressed-out state that you’re in and you won’t have the bandwidth to create these outlets. This is why, you should be developing your outlets NOW – in the time when you’re not super stressed out and looking for food to manage those emotions.

#4 – Use a Food & Feelings Journal

Use a journal where you will track your emotional/stress eating “episodes”. Any time you find yourself in this situation, take the time to write down where you were, what time of day it was, how you felt prior to eating, what (and how much) you ate, and how you felt afterward. This journal can be huge for helping you to build awareness around triggers that could be contributing to your emotional eating and also for seeing exactly how it made you feel afterward. You can then look at this journal and see how you were feeling and try inserting your alternative outlets instead of over-indulging on food, and can then see a better result in how you feel afterward!

This, as with anything, takes practice and will not be perfect immediately. Once you are aware of why you turn to food during emotional states you’ll be better able to recognize it and implement those alternative outlets! Be patient and forgiving with yourself, but use any “slip-ups” as an opportunity to learn for the next time.


Brittany Pray nutrition coach

About our Author: Brittany Pray

I'm a certified Nutrition Coach and Personal Trainer and I love helping women learn about nutrition and how to kick the fad diets to the curb! It's my mission to help as many women as I can finally accomplish fat loss without restrictive diets AND while eating their favorite, delicious foods!

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