Visit our foundation to give a gift.
View Locations Near Me
Main Campus – Hartford
Connecticut Children’s – Waterbury
Urgent Care – Farmington
Specialty Care Center – Danbury
Connecticut Children’s Surgery Center at Farmington
Specialty Care Center – Fairfield
Search All Locations
Find a doctor
Find A Doctor
Request an Appointment
Amenities and Services
Who’s Who on Care Team
Getting Ready for Surgery
What to Expect—Picture Stories
Pay a Bill
Understanding the Different Fees
Pricing Transparency and Estimates
Raytheon Technologies Family Resource Center
Family Advisory Council
Legal Advocacy: Benefits, Education, Housing
Electronic Health Records
Share Your Story
Pay a Bill
Login to MyChart
Clinical Support Services Referrals
About the Network
Join the Network
Graduate Medical Education
Continuing Medical Education
MOC/Practice Quality Improvement
Educating Practices in the Community (EPIC)
Learning & Performance
Meet our Physician Relations Team
Request Medical Records
Join our Referring Provider Advisory Board
View our Physician Callback Standards
Read & Subscribe to Medical News
Register for Email Updates
Update Your Practice Information
Refer a Patient
Find and Print Health Info
Health Information For Teens
Emotional eating is when people use food as a way to deal with feelings instead of to satisfy hunger. We’ve all been there, finishing a whole bag of chips out of boredom or downing cookie after cookie while cramming for a big test. But when done a lot — especially without realizing it — emotional eating can affect weight, health, and overall well-being.
Not many of us make the connection between eating and our feelings. But understanding what drives emotional eating can help people take steps to change it.
One of the biggest myths about emotional eating is that it’s prompted by negative feelings. Yes, people often turn to food when they’re stressed out, lonely, sad, anxious, or bored. But emotional eating can be linked to positive feelings too, like the romance of sharing dessert on Valentine’s Day or the celebration of a holiday feast.
Sometimes emotional eating is tied to major life events, like a death or a divorce. More often, though, it’s the countless little daily stresses that cause someone to seek comfort or distraction in food.
People learn emotional eating patterns: A child who is given candy after a big achievement may grow up using candy as a reward for a job well done. A kid who is given cookies as a way to stop crying may learn to link cookies with comfort.
It’s not easy to “unlearn” patterns of emotional eating. But it is possible. And it starts with an awareness of what’s going on.
We all have our own comfort foods. Interestingly, they may vary according to moods and gender. One study found that happy people seem to want to eat things like pizza, while sad people prefer ice cream and cookies. Bored people crave salty, crunchy things, like chips. Researchers also found that guys seem to prefer hot, homemade comfort meals, like steaks and casseroles. Girls go for chocolate and ice cream.
This can make you wonder: Why does no one take comfort in carrots and celery sticks? High-fat foods, like ice cream, may activate chemicals in the body that create a sense of contentment and fulfillment. This almost addictive quality may actually make you reach for these foods again when feeling upset.
We’re all emotional eaters to some extent (who hasn’t suddenly found room for dessert after a filling dinner?). But for some people, emotional eating can be a real problem, causing serious weight gain or cycles of binge eating.
The trouble with emotional eating is that once the pleasure of eating is gone, the feelings that cause it remain. And you often may feel worse about eating the amount or type of food you did. That’s why it helps to know the differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Next time you reach for a snack, check in and see which type of hunger is driving it.
You can also ask yourself these questions about your eating:
If you answered yes to many of these questions, then it’s possible that eating has become a coping mechanism instead of a way to fuel your body.
Managing emotional eating means finding other ways to deal with the situations and feelings that make someone turn to food.
For example, do you come home from school each day and automatically head to the kitchen? Stop and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” Is your stomach growling? Are you having difficulty concentrating or feeling irritable? If these signs point to hunger, choose something light and healthy to take the edge off until dinner.
Not really hungry? If looking for food after school has just become part of your routine, think about why. Then try to change the routine. Instead of eating when you get in the door, take a few minutes to transition from one part of your day to another. Go over the things that happened that day. Acknowledge how they made you feel: Happy? Grateful? Excited? Angry? Worried? Jealous? Left out?
Try these three tips to help get emotional eating under control:
1. Explore why you’re eating and find a replacement activity.
2. Write down the emotions that trigger your eating. One of the best ways to keep track is with a mood and food journal. Write down what you ate, how much, and how you felt as you ate (e.g., bored, happy, worried, sad, mad) and whether you were really hungry or just eating for comfort.
Through journaling, you’ll start to see patterns emerging between what you feel and what you eat. You’ll be able to use this information to make better choices (like choosing to clear your head with a walk around the block instead of a bag of chips).
3. Pause and “take 5” before you reach for food. Too often, we rush through the day without really checking in with ourselves. We’re so stressed, overscheduled, and plugged-in that we lose out on time to reflect.
Even when we understand what’s going on, many of us still need help breaking the cycle of emotional eating. It’s not easy — especially when emotional eating has already led to weight and self-esteem issues. So don’t go it alone when you don’t have to.
Take advantage of expert help. Counselors and therapists can help you deal with your feelings. Nutritionists can help you identify your eating patterns and get you on track with a better diet. Fitness experts can get your body’s feel-good chemicals firing through exercise instead of food.
If you’re worried about your eating habits, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you reach your weight-loss goals and put you in touch with professionals who can help you get on a path to a new, healthier relationship with food.
If a person is struggling with extra weight, it can add to the emotional ups and downs of being a teen. Get some tips on coping here.
Find out what the experts have to say!
Binge eating is a type of eating disorder. This article for teens explains what it is, how to recognize it, and how to get help.
Here are some practical, everyday tips on making exercise and healthy eating work for you instead of feeling like it’s the other way around.
Healthy snacks are essential for busy teens. Find out how eating nutritious snacks throughout the day can keep your energy level high and your mind alert.
We use the words “oveweight” and “obese” a lot, but they actually have medical meanings. Find out how doctors diagnose these conditions and what they mean for a person’s health.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved.
Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.