How to overcome your emotional eating triggers

Wednesday 8 March 2023
Older Woman in a Sun Visor Eating a Donut

Emotional eating is the act of consuming food in response to feelings and emotions, rather than hunger or nutritional needs. It can be triggered by a range of emotions, including stress, boredom, sadness, or even happiness. Emotional eating often leads to overeating and the consumption of unhealthy foods, which can contribute to weight gain and negatively affect overall health.

According to a study conducted by the University College London, emotional eating is a common coping mechanism for dealing with stress and negative emotions. People often turn to food for comfort, as it provides temporary relief from their emotional distress.

Unfortunately, this short-term satisfaction can result in long-term negative consequences for both physical and mental wellbeing. In this article, we'll explore the emotional eating cycle, the difference between emotional and physical hunger, how to identify your triggers, and effective strategies to stop emotional eating.

The Emotional Eating Cycle

Chart displaying emotional eating cycle

The emotional eating cycle consists of a series of events and emotions that perpetuate the habit of consuming food in response to feelings. This cycle typically follows a pattern:

  • Emotional trigger: An event or emotion, such as stress or sadness, initiates the desire to eat for comfort or distraction.

  • Increased appetite: The emotional trigger leads to an increased appetite, particularly for high-calorie, sugary, or fatty foods.

  • Overeating: The individual engages in comfort eating, consuming more food than needed to satisfy hunger.

  • Guilt and shame: After overeating, feelings of guilt and shame arise, which can further exacerbate the emotional distress

  • Repeat: The cycle begins anew when another emotional trigger arises, perpetuating the pattern of emotional eating.

Breaking the emotional eating cycle requires understanding and addressing the underlying emotions and triggers, as well as developing healthier coping strategies.

Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger

Emotional vs Physical Hunger Summary Table

Understanding the differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger is essential for overcoming emotional eating and maintaining a balanced diet.

Recognising these distinctions will enable you to respond appropriately to your body's needs and avoid overeating or indulging in unhealthy foods for emotional comfort. Here are some notable differences between the two:

  • Onset: Emotional hunger typically arises suddenly and feels urgent, often compelling you to eat immediately. In contrast, physical hunger comes on gradually, allowing you time to decide when and what to eat, as it can be postponed without causing distress.

  • Cravings: Emotional hunger often leads to cravings for specific comfort foods, such as sugary, fatty, or high-calorie items. Physical hunger, on the other hand, is less selective and can be satisfied with a variety of nutritious options.

  • Fullness: Emotional hunger isn't satiated once you're full, which can result in overeating. Physical hunger subsides once you've consumed enough nutrients and energy to nourish your body, signalling that it's time to stop eating.

  • Eating habits: Emotional eating is often characterised by rapid, mindless consumption and a lack of enjoyment in the eating process. Conversely, eating to satisfy physical hunger is usually a more conscious and satisfying experience, with attention paid to the taste and texture of the food.

  • Emotional aftermath: Emotional eating often leaves you with feelings of guilt, regret, or shame, as you may recognise that you've consumed more than necessary or indulged in unhealthy choices. In contrast, eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn't carry this emotional burden, as it is a natural response to your body's needs for sustenance and energy.

  • Location of hunger: Emotional hunger tends to manifest itself as a craving in your head, rather than a sensation in your stomach. Physical hunger, however, is usually experienced as stomach rumbling or mild discomfort, signalling that it's time to eat.

  • Triggers: Emotional hunger is often triggered by specific emotions or situations, such as stress, boredom, or sadness, whereas physical hunger is triggered by the body's need for nourishment after a period without food.

Recognising these differences is vital for overcoming emotional eating, as it allows you to become more aware of your body's true needs and avoid using food as a coping mechanism for emotions.

Distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger enables you to make healthier choices, maintain a balanced diet, and foster a healthier relationship with food.

Uncover Your Emotional Eating Triggers: The Path to Self-Awareness


Emotional eating triggers are events, situations, or emotions that prompt you to eat for reasons other than hunger or nourishment. By understanding these triggers and why eating might seem like a solution, you can take the first step towards breaking the cycle of emotional eating. Common emotional eating triggers include:

  • Stress: When stress levels rise, your body produces cortisol, a hormone that can lead to an increased appetite. Eating comfort foods can momentarily alleviate stress, creating a cycle of emotional eating.

  • Boredom: In the absence of stimulation, boredom may drive you to seek excitement or distraction through food, particularly overeating or indulging in unhealthy snacks.

  • Childhood habits: Eating habits developed during childhood can persist into adulthood. For example, if you were rewarded with food for good behaviour or achievements, you might associate eating with comfort and validation, leading to emotional eating in response to feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem.

  • Social situations: Celebrations, gatherings, or eating out with friends may encourage overindulgence or comfort eating. Social pressure or the desire to fit in can also contribute to emotional eating.

  • Negative emotions: Sadness, loneliness, anger, or frustration can drive people to seek solace in food, using it as a temporary escape from their emotional distress. Consuming high-calorie, sugary, or fatty foods can provide a brief sense of relief, but this often results in eating too much and perpetuating the cycle of emotional eating.

To identify your own emotional eating triggers, consider tracking your eating habits using a food diary. This method involves recording what you eat, when you eat, and the emotions or circumstances surrounding each instance of emotional eating. Over time, patterns will emerge, revealing the specific triggers that lead to your emotional eating episodes.

In addition to a food diary, you can also try the following:

  • Reflect on your past experiences with food and emotions to identify any deep-seated patterns or beliefs that contribute to your emotional eating habits.

  • Observe your thoughts and feelings in real-time when the urge to engage in emotional eating arises, noting any common themes or triggers.

  • Consult a qualified Simba health coach or therapist to help you delve deeper into your emotional eating triggers and develop personalised strategies to overcome them.

By understanding and identifying your emotional eating triggers, you'll be better equipped to develop healthier coping mechanisms and ultimately stop overeating in response to emotions.

Now that you're familiar with emotional eating triggers and how to identify them, the final step is to learn effective strategies for managing these triggers and stopping emotional eating.

How to Stop Emotional Eating


Practice mindfulness and mindful eating

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and aware of your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Incorporating mindfulness into your eating habits can help you recognise emotional hunger and prevent overeating.

Mindful eating techniques include eating slowly, savouring each bite, and paying attention to the taste and texture of the food. A study has shown that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce emotional eating and improve overall eating behaviour.

To incorporate mindfulness into your daily life, consider engaging in meditation or deep-breathing exercises, and make a conscious effort to focus on your eating experiences. You can also check out our article on mindful eating for more practical tips.

Develop alternative coping mechanisms

Replace emotional eating with healthier coping strategies for managing stress and negative emotions. For instance, engaging in physical activity can reduce stress and improve mood by releasing endorphins.

Additionally, consider journaling, talking to a friend, or practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Experiment with various coping mechanisms to find the ones that work best for you.

Build a support network

Happy family enjoying dinner in garden

Having a support network can be incredibly helpful in overcoming emotional eating. Reach out to friends or family members who understand your struggles and can offer encouragement, understanding, and accountability.

Alternatively, consider joining a support group or seeking professional help from a therapist or Simba health coach who specialises in emotional eating issues.

Keep a food and mood diary

As mentioned earlier, tracking your eating habits through a food and mood diary can help you identify emotional eating triggers and patterns. By monitoring what you eat, when you eat, and the emotions or situations that prompt emotional eating, you'll gain valuable insights into your relationship with food.

Use this information to develop personalised strategies for managing your triggers and overcoming emotional eating. There are various apps and tools available to help you track your eating habits and emotions effectively.

Create a healthy environment

Cheerful grandmother making sandwich for grandchildren at home

Making changes to your environment can significantly impact your eating behaviour. Keep tempting, unhealthy foods out of reach, and stock your kitchen with nutritious, wholesome options instead. Prepare healthy meals and snacks in advance to make it easier to choose nutritious foods when emotional hunger strikes. Additionally, establish designated eating areas in your home to discourage mindless snacking in front of the TV or computer.

Set realistic goals and celebrate small victories

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating takes time and effort. Set realistic, achievable goals for yourself, and celebrate small victories along the way. For instance, if you successfully manage your emotions without resorting to food, acknowledge your accomplishment and reward yourself with a non-food treat, such as a relaxing bath or a new book. Positive reinforcement can help you build confidence in your ability to overcome emotional eating.

Be patient and kind to yourself

Remember that overcoming emotional eating is a process, and setbacks may occur. It's essential to practice self-compassion and be patient with yourself as you work towards establishing healthier eating habits. If you slip up, acknowledge the setback, learn from it, and move forward without dwelling on the mistake.

Developing a kinder, more understanding relationship with yourself can contribute significantly to your overall well-being and success in stopping emotional eating.