Do Food Cravings Reflect Your Feelings?

How to overcome emotional eating

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on June 16, 2003
5 min read

The boss snaps at you, and you feel like biting their head off. Instead, you grab some chips from the vending machine and CA-RUNCH! Or your kids are on an overnight, you've got no one to talk to, and you feel sort of hollow inside -- doesn't a cupcake or bowl of ice cream sound delish?

This is emotional eating, says Linda Spangle, RN, MA, a Denver weight-loss specialist and author of Life is Hard, Food is Easy: The 5-Step Plan to Overcome Emotional Eating and Lose Weight on Any Diet.

It's yesterday's news that people don't eat just when they are physically hungry. In fact, we're such a generally well-nourished nation that Jane Jakubczak, RD, LD, student health center dietitian at the University of Maryland in College Park, estimates that emotional eating accounts for 75% of all noshing. People eat for all sorts of reasons besides physical hunger; stress, boredom, and depression are just a few.

"We are trained at a young age to use food for comfort and reward," Jakubczak says.

What is new is Spangle's theory -- observed over 16 years as a weight-loss coach -- that people's food choices tend to correlate to the type of emotions they're experiencing. If you look at the foods you crave, Spangle maintains, you can tell what you're feeling.

One form of emotional eating stems from what Spangle calls "head hunger": an urge to eat stemming from intellectual sources such as stress, anger, frustration, an upcoming deadline, or being misunderstood. If the food you crave is chewy or crunchy, "something you smash your teeth down on," Spangle says, you're experiencing head hunger.

"I teach people with head hunger to look at what they really want to chew on in life," Spangle says. After they have identified what they would actually like to crush between their teeth, Spangle asks them, "Will that chip really change the situation -- will it do the trick?"

Here are some highly textured foods that signal head hunger, according to Spangle: Chewy cookies or bars, M&Ms, steak or chewy meats, granola, trail mix, fried foods, chips, nuts, popcorn, crackers, french fries, hot dogs, pizza, and chocolate.

No stranger herself to emotional eating, Spangle recalls working alone all day when her husband was out of town, then starting to make a big salad for dinner. "I was chopping when a idea came into my mind," she says. "You know, maybe I should go out. I have been alone all day. Maybe that little pasta place ... pasta would be so good."

The minute Spangle thought "pasta," she stopped herself: "Instead, I asked myself, 'Why am I feeling sad and empty?'" Of course, it was because she had been alone all day.

Spangle defines this kind of "heart hunger" as a response to the "empty" emotions, such as loneliness, depression, boredom, and that feeling that something is missing. If you seek comforting foods such as ice cream, pasta, cinnamon rolls, cheese, eggs, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, biscuits, cake (especially cheesecake), alcohol, candy, and other foods that have a fond spot in your memory (say, Mom's favorite recipe), you're likely experiencing "heart hunger."

Here's another clue. "If you are hungry and don't know what you want, this is usually heart hunger," Spangle says. That phrase "I don't know what I want" is the tip-off. That's when you should ask yourself: "What am I missing?"

In the case of her lonely evening, instead of going out for pasta, Spangle finished making the salad, put it in a special bowl, and went to the prettiest spot in her house to nibble on it. She also put on some favorite music and delved into a course she had been working on. Later, she made some lunch dates and vowed to go to some networking events. The evening passed swiftly, along with her hunger.

Not everyone believes emotional eating can be so easily categorized.

"I find that some people like salty, crunchy foods and some like sweets," Jakubczak says. "When they eat for reasons other than hunger, they pick their preferred food. I have not seen a connection between selection and the type of emotional eating."

Jakubczak agrees, though, that people should get more in touch with the reasons they're eating.

"I have my clients keep a food journal and rate their hunger from one to 10 every time they eat something," she says. "One is 'Starving, can barely crawl to the refrigerator' and 10 is 'Thanksgiving-stuffed.'" Before starting a journal, she says, most have no idea of how often they're eating without really being hungry.

Neither Spangle nor Jakubczak recommends that people try to simply ignore their cravings when they recognize they're eating out of emotional hunger.

"I would never pull food away from someone without giving a replacement," Jakubczak says. "It would be like pulling the carpet out from under their feet."

Instead, they suggest substituting some non-food activities to fill the void. Here are some ideas:

  • Get moving: run upstairs, go down the hall and talk to a co-worker.
  • Put on some music.
  • Get outside and take a walk around the block.
  • Read a non-work-related, entertaining magazine for 20 minutes.
  • Take seven slow deep breaths.
  • Play with the dog.

Or, Jakubczak says, try substituting a healthier food for whatever it is you're craving -- yogurt for ice cream, for example. (By the way, she says, substituting carrot sticks for potato chips does not work! You might try baked chips instead.)

The conventional wisdom used to be that if you craved something, your body needed a nutrient found in that particular food.

With the possible exception of chocolate, which contains the feel-good brain chemical called serotonin, Spangle disdains this explanation. "Many people would rather blame their physiology instead of doing the work of sorting out their emotions and taking care of those needs," she says.

If eating carbs makes you crave more carbs, Spangle says, this may be partly due to your physiological makeup. But to stop eating the extra carbs, you need to examine the reason for the emotional eating.

So take a look at the food you're holding in your hand, and ask: "Who do I want to chew out?" "What's missing in my life?" Or just: "Why am I eating this?"

The answer could help you stop eating when you're not hungry -- and put you on the road to dealing with your feelings in a more productive way.