Emotional eating signs, triggers, and tools to help

While emotional eating may not be one of the 4 diagnoses of eating disorders according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published in 2013, it is definitely disordered eating.  If you are interested in reading more about the eating disorders, The National Eating Disorders Association has an informative article about them and the Psychology Today website has an Eating Disorders and Emotional Eating Test that will assess eating habits and evaluate the relationship with food.  After completing the test, it will give a short summary and will give the option to purchase a full report.

I personally have a history with both an eating disorder and disordered eating, but today I am going to talk about emotional eating.

Emotional eating is when we turn to food for comfort, as a stress reliever or even as a reward for something as opposed to eating when we are truly physically hungry.  For so many it seems to be the easiest way to find some relief from the stress of their daily lives.  It is also very possible that when in a bout of emotional eating we feel powerless over the cravings we have, and this will trigger shame or guild which will then trigger us to eat even more.  It can be a vicious cycle.  I know, I have been there many times.

If by chance we have been an emotional any length of time then we may no longer be aware of what our physical hunger and fullness cues are and are easily susceptible to emotional hunger and over eating. We need to be aware of the difference in the signs of emotional hunger and physical hunger.  I will give some of them below.

First of  all, emotional hunger is in our head (cravings) and physical hunger is in our belly (growling/gurgling or feeling of emptiness in the stomach)

The biggest sign of emotional hunger is that it comes on fast and hard and hits all of a sudden.  One minute we may be fine and then the next minute we are suddenly starving and need something to eat right now.  Physical hunger is more gradual and we may not feel the dire need to eat…unless it has been a long time between meals .  Physical hunger goes more like this.  For example, I may ask my husband “Are you hungry?”  He will usually pause for a moment to check in and then say something like “eh, I could eat, but I am not starving.” (I use him as an example because he is really great at knowing his hunger and fullness cues and is seldom an emotional eater.)

Emotional hunger wants something specific and wants it right NOW.  Like a hot fudge cake with ice cream with extra hot fudge, whipped cream and nuts, or maybe a great big ole greasy cheeseburger and fries or some homemade macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes (that was my go to). Only junk food or comfort foods will do for emotional hunger while physical hunger will accept whatever is available, and will probably prefer some protein and veggies if that is the usual eating pattern.

Emotional hunger can and possibly will lead to mindless eating of the food being craved.  I have been known to eat a whole damn pizza,  or an entire bag of chips and a thingy of dip, or maybe an entire bag/box of donuts.  Then when it was all gone I wondered where the hell it went because half the time i was not really paying attention did not even realize I was eating it.  And then there is also the issue of the hunger still being there even when the belly feels like it is so full it is ready to burst. Physical hunger is not like that at all.  Physical hunger ends when we get full….actually, if we are mindful, our body will give us cues that we are getting full even before we get full. (unless we don’t know our fullness cues which will be another post)

Emotional hunger can lead to feelings of guilt or shame while physical hunger understands that we have just nourished our body with things that it needs to function.

While there are lots of charts out on the interwebs about this, I love this chart from Metabolic effect.  It has several other differences in physical and emotional hunger that we need to be able to recognize.


Recognizing when the hunger is emotional is Gi-Hugic when trying to recover from emotional eating.   When we recognize that the hunger is emotional then we can be proactive and learn how to not give into it.

Now that we can recognize that a bout of Emotional hunger is here, we have 90 seconds to let the emotional hunger take over or to let it pass.

According to Jill Bolte Taylor, an emotion lasts 90 seconds and it is only when we do not let the emotion pass without judgement or we latch onto it, that the emotion controls us.

I had heard of this 90 second rule before… but cannot remember where, and was reminded of it from an article that a friend sent me that is equestrian related but is still relevant to life in general. Since I have many equestrian friends the article is Are Your Emotions Getting the Best of You in your riding. 

Of course after reading that article I had to go down the rabbit hole called the internet because I wanted a refresher on the 90 second rule and did a little more research.  Taylor describes the 90-second rule as, “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.”  If you are interested here is where you can purchase her book My Stroke of Insight – A Brain Scientists Personal Journey My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey  It is now in my cart 🙂

Ok, I get it.  It is difficult to believe that the emotion only lasts 90 seconds and that we are the ones that escalate the emotion.  It is also super difficult to sit with that emotion, feel it fully, accept it for what it is without judgement and then do nothing about it.  My first question when I first heard something like this was “Sit with my emotions?  You gotta be F***ing kidding me!  I do not want these emotions, they gotta go, they make me uncomfortable, I don’t know how to do that.”  It was always easier for me to let the food give me some illusion of pleasure so that I could muffle those emotions.  I was able to muffle the emotions because I was more aware of being physically miserable from being overfull and the other emotions were put on the back burner for a while.

So, what are some alternatives we can do other than eating until we are able to learn to deal with the emotions?  Well, first we need to find out what triggered this bout of emotional hunger and depending on the trigger, we can choose some different options for getting our mind off the cravings.  Sometimes the trigger it is something going on in our lives that makes us nervous, anxious, scared, stressed, bored, angry, or even happy and excited.  Sometimes it is a physical response to being physically  or emotionally exhausted or even going too long without eating and being too hungry to stop.  Whatever the cause, we need to get in touch with it and note the things that trigger a bout emotional eating.  Then we can find alternatives to putting ourselves into a food coma.

For some people, being depressed, lonely or grieving is a trigger.  Often, just touching base with another warm body can help.  Give a friend a call and chat with them, or even better set up a date with them.  If that is not an option, go visit someone in a hospital or nursing home that may not have family or visitors of their own.  I guarantee there will be someone who would love some company.  If that is too intimidating, playing with pets helps alleviate loneliness, if you petless, go play with fur babies that are in a shelter.

For others a big trigger is fear, anxiety, nervousness, anger etc.  This is a GREAT time to get out in nature or to get to the gym!  Go hiking, biking, walking, or whatever.  Go enjoy some activity outside. Breathe in the fresh air and let it calm you.  If outside is not possible, go to the gym and get on a treadmill, or an elliptical, put some fast paced music and go to town.  Or MY favorite.  Lift some weight.  You’ve heard the saying “When life gets heavy, lift heavy shit?”  It is very therapeutic.  No gym membership?  Find a body weight high intensity workout online and do it!

Another big trigger for many is being exhausted.  Not just tired, but mentally and/or physically exhausted.  The most obvious answer is of course to get some sleep.  Maybe take a relaxing bath with a cup of hot tea.  Curl up in a warm blanket and take a nap, diffuse some essential oils in a diffuser diffuser  and some relaxing essential oils like lavender Lavender or a blend that is relaxing blend that is relaxing  or a blend that promotes sleep blend that promotes sleep  (these are 3 of my personal favorites)

For some people being boredom is a trigger.  When boredom kicks in, we want to make sure to participate in some kind of hobby…but make sure it is a hobby that used our hands if we are indoors.  I know some people will suggest reading or watching TV, but both of those activities are associated with snacking, so we are going to avoid those for now.  Again, getting out in nature or going to the gym is also a good option here.

Understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger is easy once we understand  how they differ.  The next step is to learn how to not let the emotional hunger take over.  Until we learn how to master this technique we can use other tools and strategies to work through the emotional hunger without eating.

In my newsletter that goes out on Sunday, I will be going through the steps I have personally taken  to help me in recovering from my emotional hunger tendencies….don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with it at times, I am just getting better and better at it because I practice.

If you are not already part of my tribe and struggle with emotional hunger make sure you sign up for my newsletter right here.  Members of my tribe receive exclusive content  like recipes, workouts, and my best tools, tips and strategies on nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and how to learn how to create a life we don’t need a vacation from.  Make sure you sign up today so you don’t miss out.