7 Steps to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating

Written by, Sujatha Samynathan
Psychologist, Mindfulness Practitioner, Consumer Experience Intern

Do you remember the last time you were feeling bored and wanted to eat greasy potato chips? Or wanted to eat donuts when you were feeling stressed to make you feel better? – Sounds familiar? Here are simple steps to break the cycle of emotional eating, identify your emotional triggers, gain awareness of urges and cravings without acting on them, and develop adaptive ways to feed your emotions by making meaningful behavior changes. 

Emotion, Feeling, Mood – same or different?

Emotions are often confused with feelings and moods, but the three terms are not interchangeable. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), emotion is defined as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements.” Emotions are how individuals deal with matters or situations they find personally significant. Emotional experiences have three components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.

Feelings arise from an emotional experience. A feeling is the result of an emotion and may be influenced by memories, beliefs, and other factors.

A mood is described by the APA as “any short-lived emotional state, usually of low intensity.” For example, insults can trigger the emotion of anger while an angry mood may arise without apparent cause.

What is emotional eating? Why food?

Food plays a vital role in our daily routines and as much as it is about sustenance and nourishment, it is also about warmth, love, and connection. When we are anxious, sad, bored, or feeling low, we may eat to distract ourselves from the emotions we’re experiencing. 

Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. Certain foods might help us cope with the stress or emotion, while not being the most effective coping strategy in the long run. Each of us differs in the ways we cope with moods and emotions, food is one of the things that makes us “feel good” instantly. 

Experts define emotional eating as, “the behavior of eating/consuming large quantities of food, usually “comfort” or unhealthy foods to cope with emotions, particularly those we see as negative”. 

Difference between physical and emotional hunger 

Emotional hunger can be dominant and powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. Below are a list of cues to help you understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger.

Science behind emotional eating

Now that we know the difference between real and emotional hunger, let’s understand the science behind emotional eating and comfort food. 

Research has found that highly palatable foods can activate brain regions of reward and pleasure. This repetitive behavior of food intake leads to the activation of brain reward pathways that eventually overrides other signals of satiety and hunger (physical hunger). The brain pathways or neurotransmitters associated with emotional eating are cortisol, dopamine, and serotonin. 

Cortisol, also called, “stress hormone” – when a stressful situation arises, people often experience significant changes in their eating behavior (CDC 2020). A major “stress hormone” which triggers our fight-or-flight instinct is cortisol. When we are stressed or anxious, our bodies are flooded with cortisol, resulting in a need to carbo-load (crave sugary, fatty, salty foods).

Dopamine, also referred to as “the reward molecule/anticipating module”, is linked to food reward behavior and mood. The comfort food, we turn to because it tastes so good, results in a surge of dopamine. 

Serotonin, also called,  “the happy chemical,” gets activated, when we load our stomach with carbs. The sudden spike in the levels, improves our mood. Studies have found that specific foods like chocolate are also linked to serotonin spike. The spiral continues, and we look for that high again and again. 

Unfortunately, the cycle of emotional eating does not fix emotional problems. Here are 7 steps to break the cycle of emotional eating. It can be understood under 3 main levels of Awareness, Identification and Action 

Level 1: Awareness 

1) Understand the triggers 

The first step is to gain insight over your triggers. Get down to the root cause.  It could be stress, stuffed emotions, boredom, childhood habits, or social influences. It is important to develop awareness to identify the triggers involved in emotional eating. This way you can catch it, before the act. Using a food diary to list out the ABC’s – Antecedent (trigger), Behavior and Consequence can help understand the patterns and triggers. Once you have identified the triggers, the next step is identifying a healthier way to deal with the emotions. 

Level  2: Identification

2) Identify the emotion

Introspection is the key to understand what’s going on in the inner world. Instead of being driven by the emotions, stop and see them. “Most times we identify with the emotions we experience. But it is important to identify the emotion”. Establish a vocabulary for the emotion, it can be a feeling of sadness, anxiety, or anger. And be an “observer self” – instead of saying “I am sad”, become an audience to your own emotion by saying, “I am feeling sad”.

Level 3: Action

3) Modify the environment

Be your architect by removing your temptations and adding healthy replacements. If there is no junk in the house, you can’t engage in unhealthy eating. Keep unprocessed, low-calorie, low-fat foods like fruits and vegetables around for munching. Starting to maintain a food journal can help you understand when and what you eat. 

4) Pause and check-in

Gift yourself ‘the moment of pause’ and take some time to reflect. Emotional eating tends to be automatic and mindless. Before you even realize, you might have reached halfway through the packet of fries. 

Taking a moment, allows the amygdala to turn off and the prefrontal cortex is given a chance to engage in decision making. Ask yourself, whether you can put off eating for five minutes. This way, even if you end up eating, you will have an effective way to understand the triggers and respond better next time. This will help you understand what caused the emotional wave, instead of being swept away by it.     

5) Practice mindful eating 

Eating mindfully can help focus your mind on the hunger cues, savor, slow down the meal, eat without distraction, and curb overeating. Slowing down and savoring your food is an important aspect of mindful eating, the opposite of mindless, emotional eating. 

By eating mindfully, you will start appreciating each bite of food, you can even indulge in your favorite foods and feel the sense of fullness. This can help you avoid overeating. 

6) Practice self-compassion 

Research shows that practicing self-compassion can increase open-heartedness, which gives you the ability to face negative emotions and experience curiosity and care. Once you have realized that you are engaging in emotional eating, you may tend to start feeling guilt and shame which leads to developing an unhealthy relationship with the self. 

“Greater self-compassion is the first step towards learning to comfort yourself in other ways”, says Leslie Becker-Phelps, Psychologist. Beating yourself over, only adds to more stress and a never-ending spiral of emotional eating. So, start developing a healthy relationship with your inner critic by creating a compassionate voice. 

7) Create a healthy lifestyle 

Let Shapa do the work! Shapa is an excellent tool that provides a personalized program with customized missions, daily actions, and reminders to create long term behavioral changes. Stand on the Shapa scale every day, sign up for missions, and get feedback. Onward you go on a journey towards a healthy mind and body without any judgment!

Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, move more, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energy each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference.

About the author:
Sujatha completed her Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from India. She furthered her academic skills in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University, Indiana, USA. She currently resides in Chandler, Arizona. She has 4+ years of expertise as a mental health professional trained in psychometrics and psychotherapy working with children, adolescents and adults. She has developed a passion for mindful living, neuroscience research, human behavior and decision making, and is driven by curiosity and gratitude. She is currently working as a Consumer Experience Intern at Shapa Health, designing personalized missions by utilizing behavioral science and mindfulness techniques to improve the personal health journey of the Shapa community. When not at work, she enjoys baking, hiking and spending time with family. Connect with Sujatha on LinkedIn

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