An inside look at emotional eating

Emotional eating—turning to food for comfort—can be a major roadblock to your health and wellbeing. If you have type 2 diabetes and emotional eating is affecting how you manage your condition, there are steps available to help you find emotional freedom around food once again.
Jacqui Hathaway
3/12/21
12
min read
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Quick summary

  • Emotional eating is when someone turns to food as a source of comfort, often when they are experiencing negative emotions.
  • If you have type 2 diabetes, changes in blood sugar levels combined with the stress of living with the condition can enhance the urge to comfort eat.
  • Everyone eats emotionally but if it makes life unmanageable or if it’s standing in the way of your overall health, chances are it needs to change
  • If you live with type 2 diabetes, it’s especially important to recognise how food habits contribute to your health.
  • There are steps you can take to break the cycle of emotional eating.

Disclaimer: those struggling with eating disorders may be sensitive to this content.


Who hasn’t craved more than their share at times? Fork in hand, we’ve all made emotionally driven choices around food—an extra slice of birthday cake, pizza, or even another few handfuls of salty popcorn during a movie. It’s completely natural to lean on food for comfort. That’s why “comfort food” earned its name and often refers to the rich, high-calorie delights we associate with cheer and ease. But when a person turns to food for emotional support repeatedly, over time, it can have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. 

Emotional eating is when someone turns to food as a source of comfort

Gabrielle Salomone (LCSW)

For folks with type 2 diabetes, mood swings and the stress of living with their condition can ignite emotional eating behaviours two-fold. Using food to solve uncomfortable emotional fluctuation can contribute to weight gain and keep them from maintaining a healthy weight—something vital for a thriving type 2 life.[1]

According to Gabrielle Salomone (LCSW), emotional eating is when someone turns to food as a source of comfort, typically when they’re feeling distraught, stressed, or experiencing uncomfortable (usually negative) emotions.

Emotional eating can be a major roadblock to a person’s wellness. It frequently leads to overeating—especially high calorie aforementioned “comfort foods” in an attempt to self-soothe. Fortunately, if you have type 2 diabetes and emotional eating keeps you from living a full life, there are steps available to help you find emotional freedom around food once again. 

How do you know if emotional eating is a problem? 

If everyone eats emotionally here and there, how do you know if it’s an issue? A good rule to follow is if it makes your life unmanageable, or if it’s standing in the way of your overall health, chances are it needs to change. Though each individual is different, there are a few common signs that a person’s emotional eating has become a problem.[2]

  • They have an inability to distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger.
  • They avoid activities that would otherwise relieve stress in a positive way.
  • They harbour a sense of emptiness tied to the belief that food will satisfy their longing for fulfilment.

What causes emotional eating?

People use food to calm emotions for many reasons. Sometimes unresolved root issues and traumas can cause a person to mask their deep emotional pain by eating. Typically, emotional eating is used to cope with negative emotions, but Salomone says it can extend to managing positive feelings and celebrations as well. 

One of the most common triggers for emotional eating is stress. Harvard Health Publishing describes how stress, in the short term, is actually an appetite suppressant, but when it persists, over time, the adrenal gland releases a hormone called cortisol which increases the appetite. That’s why it’s called “stress eating”—there’s a lot of truth to it! People who are under loads of stress tend to eat more emotionally.[3]

For those with type 2 diabetes, changes in blood sugar levels combined with the stress of living with their condition can enhance the urge to comfort eat exponentially. That’s a lot of emotional strain![1]

Is food addiction a real thing? 

Many of us have referred to ourselves as “food addicts” after indulging in our favourite treats or snacks. Some may even feel they have no ability to stop themselves from eating once they start, but can you actually be addicted to something needed for survival? Or are we all simply wired to desire the very thing that keeps us alive?[4]

Unlike alcohol and other substances, food is a necessary part of life. You can’t avoid it. And while there are many arguments as to whether or not food addiction can be compared to alcohol and drugs, it certainly fits into the pool of behavioural addictions like sex and gambling. It’s the way a person treats the activity that makes it addictive.[5]

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Emotional eating vs binge eating 

Bingeing and emotional eating can overlap at times, but technically they’re very different. And it’s important to distinguish one from the other. “Bingeing is when someone eats in a discrete period of time and the amount of food is larger than most people would eat during the same time period,” says Solomone. “There is a sense of lack of control during the binge episode. Binges are also associated with eating more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating when not feeling physically hungry, eating alone due to feelings of embarrassment due to the amount of food you are eating, and feeling depressed/guilt/shame after overeating,” she explains.

All eating is emotional to some extent, and trying to remove emotion from food can create something that Psychology Today calls “deprivation motivations”. These “deprivation motivations” urge you to get all you can while you can because supply is limited.[6] The more we tell ourselves we can’t have something, the more we think of it. 

Ways to break the emotional eating cycle

If you live with type 2 diabetes, it’s especially important to recognise how food habits contribute to your health. Maintaining a healthy weight directly correlates to your quality of life. The following steps to overcome emotional eating are essential. 

Pause and identify emotions

It’s easy to lose track of where emotional wellbeing begins and where physical needs end. Say you’ve had a long day at work and come home to stare in the pantry. Are you physically hungry or emotionally disturbed? Are you stressed or starving? Before grabbing a sleeve of crackers or a jar of nut butter, check-in with yourself first. Salomone suggests learning to identify emotions through mindfulness practices. This can help you activate “the pause button” which will alleviate a sense of urgency around food.

Think before you eat

“Remembering that you can always take a break and step away from any situation [is helpful], and checking in with yourself to ask what you need is often helpful too,” she says. Slow down and recognise your feelings before sliding down an old path of comfort eating.

Find alternative ways to relieve stress

Along with the pause and identify method, learning to reduce stress is quite helpful. Meditation, breath-work and yoga are all great stress relievers to keep cortisol levels down. So, instead of running to the fridge every time you’re overwhelmed, try recognising that you’re stressed and take action to unwind in a new more constructive way. 

Keep a food journal

[Individuals with eating disorders may find this step triggering.] When you log your food intake and record how you feel, it can reveal patterns in the “food-mood” connection. These small check-ins show what exactly needs improvement. This way, you’ll learn from setbacks and move forward with confidence. [7] Maybe there’s an uptick in eating habits when certain triggers arise. Journaling is a great way to “uncover, discover, and discard” habits that keep you falling into the emotional eating cycle. It can also clarify physical hunger versus emotional hunger. It’s empowering to recognise a pattern and make a conscious decision to choose something different. 

Let go of shame

Shame perpetuates the cycle of emotional eating. There’s often a wave of guilt that comes from overeating or eating more than you planned. Those negative feelings can suck you further down into the cycle. By reusing food to bandage the new bad feelings over and over, it’s easy to feel stuck. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Emotional overeating can make you feel good; but afterwards, you are left with feelings of guilt, shame, and powerlessness.” Letting go of shame around emotional eating is important.[8] 

Seek professional help

Therapists and other mental health professionals can support you while uncovering deeply rooted emotional pain. Yes, individual work is important, but sometimes an expert can help untangle more challenging issues. If you have trouble identifying triggers around food, going deeper with a licensed professional may be worth trying.[7]

If you live with type 2 diabetes, it’s especially important to recognise how food habits contribute to your health

The “food-mood” connection is extremely complex, and the range to which people eat emotionally is vast. Combined with overlapping physical and emotional needs, it’s not hard to get totally lost in what’s happening within your mind and body. 

For those with type 2 diabetes, learning how to regulate emotions and feel a sense of peace around food can help keep you on track with your physical and mental health goals. The best defence against using food in a negative way is to remember that there are tools available to you. It’s possible to break the cycle and learn new behaviours. 

Food is more than just fuel. It’s a way to celebrate and connect with loved ones. It’s a way of life. But when emotions are too intertwined with what you eat, it can have a negative impact on long term success. Life with type 2 diabetes can seem like a lot to juggle, but emotional eating will only keep you feeling stuck. Learning to overcome emotional eating by using these tools can restore a sense of freedom and balance to your life. It is possible. 

References

[1] How Does Diabetes Affect Mood and Relationships. Medical News Today. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here

[2] Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It. Healthline. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here.

[3]Why Stress Causes People to Overeat. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here.

[4] Is Food Addiction a Real thing? Psychology Today. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here

[5] Gambling, Sex and Other Process Addictions. Reverend Health. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here

[6]Five Myths of Emotional Eating. Psychology Today. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here

[7] Tips to Stop Emotional Eating. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here.

[8] Feeding Your Feelings. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 24 November 2021. Accessible here.

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