9 Lesser-Known Emotional Eating Triggers (Part 2)
Updated: Jul 22
Do you struggle with emotional eating? Do you know what your triggers are, but find that even when you're aware of them, you're still powerless to overcoming emotional eating?
If this is the case, then you may be overlooking some of the subtle causes of emotional eating. When you think of emotional eating, you might picture a lot of tears + ice cream after a break-up but emotional eating isn’t always so obvious or dramatic! In this post, we'll discuss some of these potential triggers and offer ways to help you overcome them.
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 5 out of the 9 subtle triggers for emotional eating that you may be missing and how to stop emotional eating! If you didn't read Part 1, you can find it here.
Emotional Eating from Fatigue
Whether it is physical or mental fatigue, it is a significant trigger for comfort eating.
For example, fatigue from poor sleep can cause:
higher calorie intakes. One meta-analysis found that participants ate ~253 calories daily on average during a 2-week sleep restriction compared to their normal sleep schedule (1). Another meta-analysis found that reducing sleep to 5 hours or less per night resulted in an increase of 200 calories per day (2).
poor sleep is thought to increase hunger & calorie intake through a decrease in leptin (a hormone that suppresses appetite) and an increase in ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates appetite). This is more of a working theory as it hasn’t been confirmed in large reviews of research studies called meta-analyses.
poor sleep has even been linked to weight concerns where each hour of sleep reduction compared to 7 hours of sleep per night is associated with a 9% increase in obesity risk (3).
increased activity in our brain regions for pleasure/reward = encouraging foods higher in calories, sugar, fat, and/or salt
more opportunities to eat throughout the day or evening (if you are staying up later at night)
Not only does comfort foods release more pleasure chemicals (dopamine), but these foods are also easier to eat in larger portions as they are not often filling (such as chips, ice cream, or chocolate).
When you're sleep-deprived, it's hard to avoid the tempting fate of comfort eating. But don't worry! Your body will thank you by improving both your mood and physical health just by getting a little more shut eye.
Getting more sleep is a worthwhile investment if you are struggling to decrease comfort eating or reach your weight loss goals. Plus, sleep deprivation is used as a literal torture method so your quality of life & sense of vitality will also improve immensely.
Emotional Eating with Alone Time
The end of the day is finally over and you're left with some peace, but not much energy. You've been sitting in meetings all morning or taking care of kids while they play video games on TV - there isn't any time for yourself! Many of my clients like to unwind at the end of the night but that can often be a trigger to relax with food (and stay up late).
As a fellow introvert, I would never ask anyone to cut back on their alone time but we might need to discuss how they are utilizing their alone time as it may not be in line with their goals.
When I work with my clients, we come up with a plan to make their downtime more special or add more opportunities during the day so they don’t feel the need to stay up so late! For example: One woman started getting up earlier in order to drink coffee in silence! Another client would go outside for walks during lunchtime too - it helped clear her head after being surrounded by coworkers and screens all day long.
Emotional Eating from Boredom
Boredom is tricky because most of us do not recognize it as easily as other emotions such as anger.
I believe that this could be from a variety of reasons such as:
you are doing “something” but you do not find fulfillment in this activity such as watching TV will scrolling on your phone/falling asleep
you are busy but not effective so you struggled to fit in other activities that are exciting or engaging (if you feel like you are always working, you might not be as efficient in your tasks which takes more time and leaves less time for yourself)
you miss the subtle cues of boredom like feeling empty, listless, frustrated, unsatisfied, and searching
you are not in touch with your true desires or needs in life (boredom is masking this) or you struggle to prioritize your own needs
it’s related to mental health concerns such as depression or trauma and some people would benefit from seeing a psychologist
If you notice any of these within your life, your first step is becoming aware of what’s causing you to feel bored or acting as a barrier for you to address it! You could also take the Food Personality Quiz to learn whether you are an emotional eater or not!
Emotional Eating from Guilt
For many of my clients, unhelpful guilt or shame can be a big trigger for them to eat. See the infographic from NICABM listed below to learn more about the different types of guilt.
An example of unhelpful guilt that I see is when a client is unable to meet an unrealistic expectation with their nutrition or lifestyle goals so they think “My diet is ruined so I may as well start on Monday”.
An example of shame that I see with when a client is unable to meet goals or expectations which their brains use as “proof” of why they are a failure or not good enough.
These feelings of guilt or shame can increase our drive to eat the types or amounts of foods that are not in line with our goals or even how we want to feel.
Mistakes are going to happen and life will get in the way of your nutrition plan or goals so if you struggle to stay consistent because of unhelpful guilt or shame, you will likely get caught in the restrict-binge cycle.
In order to combat this, I love to help clients repair their relationship with food and trust in themselves before we focus on any goals for body composition changes in order to improve their ability to get and/or maintain their hard-earned results!
Emotional Eating as a Punishment
Eating to punish yourself is another one that tends to go unnoticed.
You may eat or avoid eating (then overeat) to punish:
yourself for breaking a strict diet rule, missing exercise goals, or self-hatred. If you eat food (type or quantity) to feel sick or in pain, you may be eating to avoid treating yourself with care, love, or kindness. If you eat to feel bad, you may be acting in accordance with the beliefs you have about yourself (i.e. you are “bad” or “unworthy”).
others for trying to control you or your body. For example, if you have a spouse or parent who wants you to lose weight and makes a lot of negative or passive-aggressive comments about your food choices and lifestyle, you might eat to show your independence or punish them for even trying to control you.
If you notice any of these habits, I highly recommend seeking help from a psychologist since these habits can be formed from trauma, family dynamics, and unhelpful beliefs about yourself. In the meantime, it can be great to start practicing self-compassion (although it is not a cure and I still recommend therapy)!
Some of my favourite resources including journals or meditations are from Dr. Kristin Neff.
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.
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’s where I 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.
(1) Qionggui Zhou, Ming Zhang, Dongsheng Hu. Dose-response association between sleep duration and obesity risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Sleep Breath (2019).
(2) S Fenton, et al. The influence of sleep health on dietary intake: a systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies. J Hum Nutr Diet (2021).
(3) Qionggui Zhou, Ming Zhang, Dongsheng Hu. Dose-response association between sleep duration and obesity risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Sleep Breath (2019)