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Emotional Eating

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Topic Overview

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating means that you eat for reasons other than hunger. You may eat because you're sad, depressed, stressed, or lonely. Or you may use food as a reward. Food can be soothing and distract you from what's really bothering you.

If you are an emotional eater, you may not listen to your body's natural hunger and fullness signals. You may eat more than you need or want.

Emotional eating can interfere with making healthy food choices. And it can keep you from getting to a healthy weight and staying there.

What are signs of emotional eating?

Everyone eats for reasons other than hunger once in a while. But if you notice that you often reach for food out of boredom or for comfort, you may be eating for emotional reasons.

Common signs of emotional eating are:

  • Changing your eating habits when you have more stress in your life.
  • Eating when you are not hungry or when you are full.
  • Eating to avoid dealing with a stressful situation.
  • Eating to soothe your feelings.
  • Using food as a reward. (For example, "That was really a tough job/assignment/argument. I need some ice cream/candy/popcorn!")

What are some ways to deal with emotional eating?

Identify your emotional eating triggers

One way to figure out what triggers emotional eating is to keep a food journal.

Write down when and what you eat. Also write down what you were doing and feeling before you started eating. You can use this information to find patterns in your eating habits. For example, you might notice that every time you start to worry about an assignment at work, you buy an unhealthy snack from the office vending machine.

Use a hunger scale

A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between true, physical hunger and hunger that's really just in your head. Psychological hunger is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions, like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness.

When you start feeling like you want something to eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of 5 or 6 means you're comfortable—neither too hungry nor too full.

1—Starving, weak, dizzy
2—Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling
3—Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
4—Starting to feel a little hungry
5—Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
6—A little full, pleasantly full
7—A little uncomfortable
8—Feeling stuffed
9—Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10—So full you feel sick

Use the scale to rate your hunger level. If you feel like eating but your hunger level is a 6 or higher on the scale, stop and check your emotions.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 21, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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