Emotional Eating Causes: Understanding The Less Known Triggers (Part 1)

Do you find yourself reaching for that bag of chips or tub of ice cream when you’re feeling down, stressed, or anxious? Do you know what your triggers are, but find that even when you’re aware of them, you’re still powerless to overcome emotional eating? If this is the case, then you may be overlooking some of the subtle emotional eating causes. You’re not alone.

Emotional eating affects many people, and it’s often rooted in a complex mix of factors related to our psychology, environment, and habits. That’s because emotional eating isn’t always obvious or dramatic, and sometimes subtle causes can play a significant role. In this post, we’ll explore some of these less-obvious triggers and offer practical tips to help you tackle emotional eating and achieve a healthier relationship with food.

eggs with expressions drawn on them emotional eating causes

Keep in mind that everyone’s situation with emotional eating is unique, so make sure to tailor the advice to fit your own needs. With a little bit of effort, you can finally break free from the grip of emotional eating and reclaim control over your life. So read on for helpful tips that can get you started!

Awareness precedes all change so before you can improve your relationship with food, learning more about your emotional eating triggers is key to creating new eating habits! Here are 4 out of the 9 subtle triggers for emotional eating that you may be missing and how to stop emotional eating!

Hidden Emotional Eating Causes: Learn Why And How To Stop

Eating To Cope With Pain

Feeling unwell is a big trigger for many of my clients! This includes chronic pain, a recent injury, unmanaged heartburn, migraines, hangovers, or feeling run down. If you crave your mother’s or grandmother’s cooking when you are feeling sick or run down, this might be a sign! That little hit of dopamine we get from emotional eating can help us feel better as dopamine is not only involved in our pleasure/reward pathway, but it can also reduce the sensation of pain. Unfortunately, these “feel good” effects are short-lived and we are right back to where we started. So how do we stop emotional eating?

One way is to become aware of which emotional and physical responses you have to uncomfortable emotions. What situations or emotions lead us to turn to comfort food?

Once we are aware of our triggers, we can start to develop other coping mechanisms to deal with them. This might involve talking to a friend or therapist about our feelings, relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation, or writing in a journal. With a little effort, we can break the cycle of emotional eating and start on the path to true healing.

Pain or feeling unwell can be a very lonely experience. You can feel like you are the only one going through it and that nobody understands. You may feel like you have tried everything and nothing works. When you are dealing with chronic pain, it is important to find ways to cope that work for you. It can be sharp and searing, or a dull ache that lingers for days, weeks, even months. It can be physical pain or the pain of a broken heart. And while we all experience pain at some point in our lives, for some of us, pain is a constant companion.

If you’re one of those people who live with chronic pain, you know just how debilitating it can be. Not only does it take a toll on your physical health, but it can also lead to emotional eating. When you’re in pain, it’s easy to turn to food for comfort. After all, food can be a great coping mechanism. It numbs the pain, both physically and emotionally. But just as pain can be chronic, so can emotional eating. And if you’re not careful, emotional eating can become a dangerous cycle.

How To Prevent Emotional Eating From Pain

So how do you break the cycle? First, it’s important to understand why you’re turning to food in the first place. Once you’ve identified your emotional eating causes, you can start to develop other coping mechanisms.

For many of my clients dealing with chronic pain, we can improve flare-ups by minimizing inflammation from diet but it is also a great idea to get help from other services such as a chronic pain clinic or psychologists who specialize in somatic therapy to help you cope in a more helpful way. Remember, you’re not alone in this battle.

Chaotic Eating

chaotic eating cycle

I don’t know if I will ever stop talking about this but it’s for good reason! While this isn’t necessarily a part of the true emotional eating causes, hunger is often confused with it so it is good to be aware of your triggers so you can make more effective changes to your eating habits. I call this eating pattern “Chaotic Eating”.

Not eating enough can come in a few forms:

  • forgetting to eat
  • struggling to make time for themselves during the day
  • skipping meals
  • following intermittent fasting diets
  • restricting the volume, carbs, and/or calories at breakfast or lunch
  • restricting the volume, carbs, and/or calories during the week

How To Improve Chaotic Eating

So how do you know if you’re really hungry, or if you’re just using food as a coping mechanism? One way to tell is by paying attention to your hunger cues. If you’re physically hungry, you’ll likely feel a growling stomach or lightheadedness.

But if you’re just eating because you’re stressed or bored, chances are you won’t even be aware of your hunger cues. You may also find yourself eating even when you’re not physically hungry, or eating more than you normally would when you are hungry.

Regardless of why someone isn’t eating enough, many of my clients struggle with the compensatory hunger that comes along later in the day, evening, or during the weekend.

In order to help my Chaotic Eaters avoid the compensatory eating cycle, I help them nourish themselves in a more balanced way during the day or week to prevent the feelings of being out of control around food (and setting them up for the diet-binge cycle).

Emotional Eating Causes: Reward

Food is associated with celebration, love, recognition, and reward. From a young age, we are taught that food is associated with celebration, love, recognition, and reward. Birthdays are celebrated with cake and parties, holidays revolve around large meals shared with family and friends, and good grades are often rewarded with a trip to the ice cream store. Even in the workplace, food is often used as a reward for a job well done.

Eating can stimulate the release of a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is involved in our pleasure/reward pathway. Eating can make us physically feel well but there is also an emotional attachment because of how we were raised such as getting ice cream for good grades which combines food + praise/recognition + our families showing us love. That is a powerful cocktail for making us feel loved, appreciated, or seen!

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good meal, it’s important to be aware of how food can be used as a reward. Overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a way to cope with negative emotions or celebrate your wins can lead to health problems or act as a barrier for you to reach your goals.

How To Stop Reward Eating

For many of my clients, we strive to improve their awareness of why they turn to food as a reward (you might notice a pattern here with awareness always coming first in the nutrition treatment plan) and modify how they reward themselves.

To start building your awareness, here are some examples of some “red flags” to listen for:

  • “I “need” this
    • It’s a slight tone difference that you need to pay attention to as it is different from “I need to go to the bathroom” or “I need to drink some water”.
  • I “deserve” this
    • This is also a slight tone difference that you need to pay attention to as it is different from “I deserve to rest” or “I deserve to be treated with respect”.
  • “I’ve been good”
    • Using words to treat or reward to justify to yourself why you are eating foods

Emotional Eating Causes: Procrastination Eating

This one is also very subtle and can be hard to recognize at the moment. Eating as “something to do” or to delay starting the next task is fairly common! You might have developed this habit as a kid if you ate to delay starting homework & chores or if you were not allowed to rest.

I often see this with adults who are fairly busy, rarely have time for themselves, and have a hard time relaxing. If you have an unhelpful belief that you are “not allowed” to rest or take breaks and your identity or self-worth is directly tied to your output or achievements, you may find yourself justifying with food why you are taking a break!

How To Stop Procrastination Eating

In order to combat this, I help women reconsider areas they could get more downtime and/or recommend help from a psychologist. If you want to start reducing your procrastination snacking, some helpful affirmations that my clients love are:

  • I am worthy regardless of my productivity.
  • My value does not depend on what I achieve.
  • I do not have to “earn” rest & relaxation.

Once you identify the root cause of your behavior, it will be easier to find other ways to cope with it. For example, if you’re procrastinating on starting a project, try setting a timer for 10 minutes and working on it for that amount of time. Just getting started can be half the battle! There are endless possibilities for how to change your relationship with food – it just takes some awareness and effort to get started.

lady procrastination eating at laptop

There you have it, here’s 4 out of 9 subtle emotional eating causes and part 2 will cover the remaining 5! Emotional eating can be a tricky habit to break, but understanding the subtle triggers can be a key step in overcoming it. By identifying your triggers and practicing coping mechanisms, you can start to regain control over your relationship with food. Remember to be patient with yourself and seek support if needed. With time and effort, you can overcome emotional eating and find a healthier, happier relationship with food.

In order to build more awareness, the first step I recommend is starting a food and mood journal to uncover more of your stress eating triggers, physical hunger, and emotional hunger to stop emotional eating.

If you are like many people, you may not be aware of the subtle emotional triggers that lead to your stress eating. Or, you might be attached to food in ways that aren’t helpful for your health and weight goals.

It is important to get clear about why you emotionally eat and what you can do instead of turning to food for comfort. That is where our Dietitians where come in!

Reach out for a clarity call on which nutrition plan suits your needs best. Together we can work on creating a sustainable plan that will help you break free from emotional eating and feel better in your body than ever before.

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