Emotional Eating: Dealing with Cravings

We’ve all experienced this scenario before: it’s been one of those hectic days at work, and now you’re craving that double cheese pizza you stashed away at the back of the freezer.

But before you start digging in, ask yourself why you’re really craving. Are you really just famished after a long day? Or are you using food to fill an emotional void?

Why We Crave

Cravings usually take place when we haven’t been eating properly. We crave when our blood sugar levels are low, which is what can happen if we don’t eat healthy foods rich in vitamins, nutrients and protein in regularly-spaced intervals.

When we crave, our bodies usually seek foods that are high in calories or fat in order to satisfy the void in our stomachs. The foods we crave have deeper roots; for example, if we are lacking minerals like zinc or magnesium, which are found in meats, we might crave a chocolate bar, which contains the same ingredients.

Physical versus Emotional Eating

There is a very fine line between physical hunger and hunger that is emotionally-based.

A physical craving is one that doesn’t go away if you wait a few minutes or try another activity. In fact, it will increase as time goes on and will only go away once you’ve eaten the food you’re craving. This is true physiological hunger.

An emotional craving on the other hand is one in which no actual feelings of physiological hunger exist. This type of hunger doesn’t increase if you wait a few minutes or turn your attention to another activity, but the underlying emotion behind your hunger does increase. This type of hunger usually goes away if you satisfy what the real need behind your food craving is, whether it’s taking a short nap to reenergize or talking to a loved one whose company you miss.

The Emotional Component: When Cravings Go Beyond Physical Hunger

Craving is a normal occurrence and as long as we don’t let it get out of hand, it doesn’t pose any major risks, emotional or physical.

But cravings do have a fundamental psychological component that we must all be aware of. In fact, the most common emotional triggers of craving, in order, are: stress or anxiety; loneliness; anger; PMS; and sadness or depression.

But why do we eat when we experience these emotions?

As children, we were raised to associate food with certain emotions. For example, you may have received a cookie as a treat if you aced your latest math or spelling test. Ice cream is the food of choice after we get our tonsils out. And chicken soup was probably what you had when you were sick.

This association between certain comfort foods and a certain emotional state of mind is hard to break in adulthood. But it’s important to make a distinction between your emotional state and food in order to effectively address and cope with the true problems in your life. Focus on what your body is really craving. If you’re just overtired, take a nap instead of reaching for that box of Oreos. Or take a multivitamin to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients. If you want to reward yourself, why not watch your favorite movie or take a bubble bath? Feed the real void in your life, and most of your food cravings will melt away like unwanted ice cream.

Signs of Emotional Eating: When Is a Craving More than Just Physical?

Here are some signs to look for when trying to assess whether your craving has an emotional trigger:


  • If you’re eating something without realizing it, chances are your cravings have an emotional root. Be conscious of what you’re eating and take a moment before you reach for that donut to assess whether you’re really hungry or just eating mindlessly.
  • Do you eat after experiencing certain emotions, such as anger, boredom, or sadness? Find a more positive way to work through these emotions. Go for a walk to clear your thoughts instead of turning to food.


Food Alternatives: How to Cut Down on Those Pesky Cravings

Make sure your snacks are healthy ones. Stock up on fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables and yogurt for your snack drawer. These foods help regulate blood sugar levels and also ensure you’re meeting all of your nutrition needs.
Don’t rule out foods like chocolate or nachos. By designating certain foods as forbidden, you’ll only increase your chances of craving them. Have the food that you crave (in a rational portion size of course) or you’ll just end up ending more.
To minimize cravings, try these alternatives: drink some water; take some deep breaths; take up an activity like listening to music or going for a short walk; wait a few minutes to see if the hunger passes. Chances are that by delaying your craving, you can overcome it.

How to Control Your Emotions and Keep Off Those Extra Pounds

Keep cravings under control by analyzing what’s really going on in your life. By reflecting on what the positives and negatives are in your life you’ll feel more in control of your life and less likely to turn to Ben & Jerry’s for consolation.

Try keeping a journal to analyze your thoughts and emotions. Jot down what activities a typical week includes, whether you like these activities and which activities you prefer to spend your time on.

Nurture what’s really missing in you life. Is it food you want, or love? If you’re feeling lonely or depressed, talk to a friend or loved one and reconnect with the people in your life.

Find positive ways to cope with difficult situations in your life. Take up a hobby, such as a dance class, or join a local book club. This will give you an outlet through which to express yourself and also help you feel more connected to the outside world.

Don’t have an “all-or-nothing” approach when it comes to food (or life for that matter). If you’re on a diet or are simply being more conscious about what you eat, don’t let eating one “bad” food be the end of it. Acknowledge the indulgence, then move on.

Knowing your emotions means that you’ll be able to enjoy food without feeling guilty. Finding out what you really crave, and taking steps toward achieving this more profound, fulfilling goal will make your life that much more satisfying and rewarding.

For more tips on eating healthy, check out our
Healthy Diet section and our
Healthy Snack Ideas section.

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