Emotional Eating? This Is Why It's So Hard To Stop

Emotional eating in a Nutshell

Emotional eating, comfort eating, binge eating… Most if not all of us have experienced this at some point in time, or basically all of the time. This is where we are driven to eat, or not eat, depending on what our emotions are telling us. Effectively we are using food as a comfort or a way to numb intense feelings.

We can either consume heaps of stuff; pizza, donuts, cake, a whole chicken and an extra tim tam all in one massive sitting or, hide away somewhere with a bag of chocolates, or zone out and finish the whole tub of ice cream even though we’re already uncomfortably full.

So what’s happening? What is driving us to do this?

Physiological: we’re hungry. Although not quit deemed as emotional eating, this is still important to note as it can lead to a bingeing splurge. If you’re not feeding your body foods that are nutritious and satiating, then you will crave. Likewise, if you under eat you will also at some point binge. Now it may not be the same day that you undereat, it may not even be the next day, but you will at some point binge. Your body is basically hungry and is seeking out the nutrients it so desperately needs, and it wants these now! You can’t trick your body into not needing food, it will do whatever it can to seek out food and get you to eat.   

 On a separate note never ever use intermittent fasting as a punishment for overeating.

Environment: Not talking about climate change. I’m talking about things and places that set off the automatic need to feed. Places that our minds have associated with food. For example, eating in front of TV, Computer, Phone, while watching movies, Favorite chair Etc

Also, images on TV or social media and society’s obsession with thinness can also be a massive environmental trigger.

Social Situations: We have a tendency to mirror other people. Have you ever been out with friends and drank or ate way more than you usually do? Or eat foods you don’t usually eat?

It’s possible that you are mirroring that person.

What are you on about Lee? What do you mean mirroring?

Mirroring is when you unconsciously imitate the other person, be it how they move, eat, talk. It’s a style of non-verbal communication. Think of it like a group of teenagers, on their own they aren’t that bad, put them all together and they can be diabolical and appear as one entity.


You see we especially mirror the people we are fond of, usually friends and also family. This means that out in some social situations we unconsciously eat and drink in the same manner and style as someone else.


Basically, it’s all about making connections. We activate our mirror neurons, yes they are an actual thing, in order to mirror the other person’s nonverbal cues and build connections. The person being mirrored also feels a stronger connection. It’s very common in conversations, you unconsciously mirror the persons posture, frowns and smiles as they talk. You’re basically being in sync with each other.

So yes, it’s you family and friends’ fault that you binge…. just kidding or maybe not…

Next time you’re out with friends and family around food, just take note and be aware of it, you don’t have to stop mirroring completely as it’s an important nonverbal communication. But just be aware of it around food, and see if you can catch yourself mirroring.

Thinking food in terms of good and bad: The whole ‘I’m on this new diet which means I can never eat such and such again’. Danger! Danger! Will Robinson! This is a set up!

This will set you up for failure. If you keep telling yourself that eating a certain food is bad, and that you should feel guilty for eating it, you will feel absolutely deprived and that food will come back with vengeance…trust me on this one!


Let’s say for example you eat something like ooo a nice gooey desert which in your mind is classed as ‘bad’ food. You will most likely feel absolutely guilty and shameful after eating it. And as we know internally shaming ourselves is no help to you whatsoever.

Take the power away from food. Make it neutral. Instead of saying this is good that is bad just simply ask yourself is this food going to do anything helpful for me? Is it going to give me the nourishment I need? If at the time you want the chocolate desert after dinner and it’s not because your comfort eating or binging then have the chocolate and damn well enjoy it.


Emotional deprivation: Stuffing those feelings down with food. This is a way of escaping those feelings and calming the mind. People tend to feel much calmer after overeating, you may not feel physically comfortable, but you’ll feel much calmer.

Why does food make us feel so much better at the time?

Well food is a dopamine for most people, it calms you down.

You see when we stress, get anxious, and feel emotions we generally just don’t want to feel, our cortisol levels, (a stress hormone), rises and our breathing increases.

Now our mind doesn’t like to see us stressed, sad or anxious and really doesn’t like cortisol spiking and our breathing increase, all it wants to do in that instant is calm us down.

How is it going to do this? By getting us to breathe slower. The quickest effective way that it knows has worked before; by getting you to eat something. Your mind knows that your breathing automatically slows down when you’re eating.  Better yet it also knows if you’re eating something gooey, oooey sweet and chewy, not only will your breathing slow down and your dopamine levels rises, (calming drug), but so too will your serotonin levels, which is your ‘feel good’ drug…  Instant win, win. So, with this in mind it will create a craving for you to go get that food. The more often we do this the more we make it a go to pattern of calmness.

Now if you like to go running and have had a dopamine hit from that too your mind will give you that choice as well, it’ll be like ‘ooo I want that gooey hot fudge Sunday, but I also want to go for a run’. You see the minds point of view knows no difference, both options will lead to stress relief hit of dopamine.

Anything you are passionate about increases dopamine. Run, meditate, hike, crochet if you love it, it will elicit dopamine response.

Back to food however, there is a double edge sword in this as dopamine receptor sites can decrease in the brain as you give it more and more of the food. Which means you each time you soothe with food you will need more of it to get the same calming effect that it did before. I know highly unfair!

How come it's so hard to stop it?​

Now you’re probably thinking it’s because you have no self-control, willpower or you just think it’s a bad behavior that you need to ‘snap out of’ and that’s why you can’t stop doing it. This is simply not true, so chuck those thoughts away along with the guilt and shame and let’s take a look at what’s going on….


Patterns, not taken over by aliens drawing nifty patterns in the cornfield style, but everyday life patterns.

What are you on about Lee? What patterns?

Our brains are wired to seek out patterns. In fact, we adore patterns as this way we can automat our behaviors.

Everyone has pattern they go by, or if you prefer, rituals and habits. They can be pretty obvious…like ‘don’t talk to me until I have had my morning coffee’ pattern, or a more subtle, wake up small stretch reach for water-bottle pattern.

Think of emotional eating as just another pattern.

That’s brilliant Lee, but if it’s a pattern then why can't I just break it and move on?​

Because there is one more connection to this pattern that can make it frustrating. The body.

Our body holds emotion. Yes, I know it sounds a bit woo woo but bear with me on this, science has actually starting to back this up. Our body can hold the emotional memory of the brain. It can become almost like the unconscious mind of what the brain does. Still with me?

Ok, think of this, have you ever felt stressed out, that your stomach hurts? So nervous you ‘felt butterflies’ in your stomach? Perhaps so anxious that you feel you need to go for a run to burn of the energy in your legs? So upset your hands or whole-body shakes?

The mind is extremely powerful. So powerful that what it thinks about or creates as a memory, it will accept as reality. Now as the mind and body are connected then if the mind believes something is reality in that moment, then so too will the body.

It’s also important to note that emotions and feelings are usually reactions to past experiences, unless they are happening right now, but usually when we are reaching for comfort food, we are thinking about a past experience, either 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years ago. Our mind likes to reminisce on past experiences…over and over and over again… Before long your caught in past emotions while eating a packet of tim tam biscuits in the present.

How do we get ourselves out of the loop and away from the tim tams?​

You need to ask yourself what are you doing/feeling? Before? During? and after?

It all starts with the ‘Why’

Why are you reaching for the food?

 What’s the payoff? What are you getting out of it?

Is it for comfort? Stress relief? Boredom? Are you hungry? Is it social?

We are creatures that are motivated by reward. You aren’t emotionally eating just for the hell of it. There is a reward or a payoff that your receiving in that moment. Even if you feel lousy afterwards.

Get curious, and chuck away the judgement.

What are you feeling? Why are you feeling that way? Where is it happening? What time does it happen?

Use Your Imagination​

Visualize and use that imagination.

Imagine what you want to happen instead of heading to the cupboard, fridge vending machine, visualize what else you could do.  Really visualize, what do you feel? what do you want to change it? how will you do it? think of the environment the time of day, the emotion, don’t focus on what you did or normally do. Just think of what you want to do.


By focusing on how you want to eat or react and not how you are eating or reacting you are linking the brain and body to a ‘future memory’ so to speak.

Remember when I said the what the mind and body thinks about, or creates as a memory, it will accept as reality and will start to think it in that way. This is what we are trying to tap into, effectively creating a new future. And like working a new muscle this will eventually override the past pattern.

This my friends is neuroscience.

Change your ritual, now I’m not talking about sacrificing a goat here, nope, we are not at that level yet…change your routine…slowly… Put that visualization and imagination above into practice.

Why do people give up?

They focus on how far they have to go instead of how far they have come


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