EMOTIONAL EATING: Learn How to Break the Cycle

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by Jeanne Strauss

Food is many things to humans. If we only ate for our physical needs, we could maintain perfect weight and eat only highly nutritious foods. The challenge is we’re also emotional creatures, so we often eat in response to our feelings. When we fail to take our emotions into account, we can’t successfully change our poor eating habits. The foods we eat change our brain chemistry temporarily, and this soothes our emotional state. That soothing effect is why food can be addicting.

The next time you reach for a snack, pause to look at the emotions you are experiencing in the moment. For many people there are predictable emotion/food choice patterns. Here are some examples:

Bored, agitated or overwhelmed: In these emotional states, we tend to reach for salty snacks, especially ones that involve a lot of repetitive motion. Dipping repeatedly into a bag of chips is a common response.

Anxious, stressed or irritated: These feelings cause us to reach for the chocolate and sugar. If you find yourself craving sweets, it might be due to an underlying feeling of anxiety or stress.

Sadness, depression or hopelessness: These emotional states often make us reach for comfort foods, which can include warm, cheesy, high-fat foods that require a spoon.

The cycle of salty, sweet and fat: When emotions are out of control, we may cycle through all of these emotional states on an endless loop. This can cause a situation where bored eating leads to anxiety about our health, which leads to sugar eating, which leads to feelings of hopelessness, which leads to high fat comfort foods; then we’re overwhelmed and back to salty.


Breaking the cycle involves finding new ways to sooth or care for yourself emotionally so food isn’t your primary coping mechanism.

The next time you find yourself wanting to eat something that your body doesn’t really need, take 30 seconds to write down what you’re feeling. Spend 30 seconds writing, not just thinking about your feelings. This will help you discover your own unique food/emotion connections for comfort or stress release. Once you know your emotional triggers, you can experiment with other ways to cope with those feelings.

There are many techniques to change behaviors that no longer work for you such as writing exercises, engaging in alternative soothing behaviors, exercising to change brain chemistry, building strength and confidence, using an accountability partner, talking about feelings instead of stuffi ng them, building a support system and improving your relationships. Emotions will always influence the foods we choose, but we can learn to feed our emotions proactively with healthier choices.

Start noticing your traps and triggers today. Maybe it will come from the coworker who brings donuts to work. Maybe it will be a distressing call from your mother that makes you reach for the thin mints, or maybe its a feeling of loneliness when you arrive at home that causes you to make the cheese dip for supper. Once you learn to stop automatically reaching for food, you will discover untapped emotional depth and resilience.

Jeanne Strauss is a therapist in San Antonio working with individuals and couples. She has been a licensed clinical social worker for 25 years, specializing in anxiety, stress, personal development, couples counseling, communication and resolving negative relationship patterns. She can be reached at 210-787-6384 or www.jeannestrauss.com.

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