Emotional Eating: How to Break the Cycle


Q:  I feel like stress eating is taking over my life. I’m a mother, a wife and work full time, so when I get home from work every day and finish putting the kids to bed, I’m done! Lately, I’ve been finding myself in my pantry after bedtime, mindlessly snacking on anything and everything (animal crackers, chocolate chips, you name it!). I feel really out of control! It’s become such a habit at this point, and I don’t know how to begin changing it. How can I break this cycle?


A:  What an awesome question! Emotional eating or stress eating is very common, especially for mothers. As a mother and “recovering emotional eater”, I can definitely relate!

First, I’d like to explain a little more about emotional eating in general. Like I said before, eating for emotional reasons is completely NORMAL, and every human being does it to some degree. Emotional attachment to food is woven into our experiences from birth. Think about a newborn baby who nurses (or bottle-feeds) from his mother. Besides the physical benefits of the food itself are the emotional benefits, like the skin-to-skin contact, which promotes bonding between mommy and baby. The newborn quickly associates feeding and sucking as a form of comfort and as a way to self-soothe.

Whether at a wedding or other simcha, celebrating on Shabbos and holidays with family, or date night with your spouse, eating is a natural way to express emotion. These are all normal, healthy ways to use food to express emotion on these occasions.

So when does emotional eating become a problem?

It only becomes a cause for concern when eating becomes the primary means for coping with or numbing unwanted emotions. It can also become a problem when your emotional eating habits conflict with your health goals, such as weight loss, or changing your diet for other health reasons. I often tell my clients that in order to truly lose weight in a sustainable way, they have to first heal their relationship with food. Failure to work on this is one of the main causes of yo-yo dieting—the repeated cycle of losing weight and gaining it back over and over again. The first step to breaking the emotional eating cycle is to start differentiating between “physical hunger” and “head hunger”— between the physical urge to eat versus emotional or environmental triggers. Try asking yourself a very simple, yet powerful, question before you eat: “Am I hungry?”

Physical hunger might feel like a rumbling in your stomach, light-headedness or fatigue, whereas head hunger might be a strong craving or desire to eat something. Unfortunately, because of the strong societal diet mentality, we’ve learned to associate hunger with “unnecessary calories” and silence it with things like drinking coffee or chewing gum to suppress our appetite. Although we have been influenced to be afraid of hunger, we have to recognize that hunger is our body’s natural way of telling us that we need food and nourishment—if we didn’t experience hunger, then how would we know to feed ourselves? When we stop listening to our hunger cues, our body either tries to get our attention by increasing our appetite and cravings, or it stops trying to tell us that we’re hungry by suppressing hunger cues altogether. For example, people who consistently don’t eat breakfast commonly don’t get hungry in the morning—their bodies have adapted to this routine and it has become habit. Learning how to recognize your real hunger alone is a way of bringing mindfulness into the picture when making food choices. This is extremely important in this process, because oftentimes, emotional eating is not a mindful decision. At some point, we suddenly notice that our spoon has reached the bottom of the ice cream container that was once full.

Once you can mindfully identify whether you are experiencing head hunger or physical hunger, the next step is to get curious about what is triggering the head hunger and the desire to eat. Are you being triggered by a stressful day at work, a child at home who is acting out, exhaustion, or the need to relax or unwind? Perhaps your spouse isn’t effectively meeting your emotional needs or you haven’t been as social as you’d like.

You mentioned in your question that you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out from family and work. I would invite you to ask yourself, “What do I really need right now if it’s not actually food?” Figuring out what your needs are can be the most challenging step, as so many of us are out of tune with our emotional needs or deny that we have needs altogether. Once you can identify the need, then you can start finding other activities to replace the eating which will truly nourish you in the way your body needs. So if you’re tired at the end of a long day at work and with your kids, you might find that you are in need of comfort. Instead of eating chocolate chips, mindfully treat yourself to something else, like a good book, a hot tea and a cozy blanket on the couch. I can guarantee that this will nourish you way more than any snack.

It’s important to keep in mind that if a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it. Even though it may seem like chocolate chips or other go-to foods are satisfying your emotional and physical craving at the time, it is short-lived and won’t really satisfy the true underlying need. It’s like putting on a band-aid instead of addressing the actual problem. Our body knows exactly how to get our attention, so if you’re experiencing a lot of stress, it makes perfect sense that that would translate to eating.

I find that there is a big misconception out there that people who emotionally eat just don’t have enough “self-control”—this is totally false! As a health coach, I view emotional eating as a sign of unmet needs which are trying to get your attention. Of course you need to relax and treat yourself at the end of a long day at work, and “having more self-control” by getting rid of the chocolate chips or junk in your pantry won’t solve that problem. You deserve to have your needs met—but in a healthy, real way, instead of with a quick fix like eating junk food.

The final step to keep in mind throughout this process is to learn how to turn judgement into curiosity. Notice how there is no judgement when we are curious about something. As humans, we might make mistakes or wrong choices sometimes, but we also have the ability to decide how to react to those choices. It is imperative in the process of healing our relationship with food to learn how to become more compassionate to ourselves, because healing cannot come from a place of judgment.

From your question, I’m sensing that there is a lot of self-judgment happening. Instead of judging and being hard on yourself when you go for those chocolate chips in your pantry, simply be curious. Change “I’m so bad! Why did I do that?!” to “I’m curious as to what led me to eat this way…” Once we can do this, we will have greater insight about what our needs really are and if they are being effectively met.

It’s important to recognize that healing your relationship to food and breaking these old patterns will not happen overnight—it’s a process that starts with putting one foot in front of the other, or rather, one need in front of the other. Switching from judgment to curiosity gets us one step closer to self-compassion, which is something we could all use more of in our lives. Personally, this was my turning point that led me to help myself build a healthier relationship with food, and a healthier lifestyle overall.

Real health will come naturally when you make the decision to be kind to yourself and to your body.