Calming Your Inner Emotional Eater

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Editor's Note: Obesity expert Dr. Martin Binks contributes regular guest posts to the dailySpark. Links to products and services contained within do not necessarily imply endorsement by Dr. Binks.

All too often both men and women fail to recognize a core issue that interferes with successful weight management: Emotional Eating. We spend our time looking for the next "right" diet plan or the perfect workout to control our weight when in fact the caloric damage from emotional eating accounts for so much of the struggle with weight for many people. Of course balanced and satisfying meals help control REAL hunger, but rarely when eating off plan is true hunger the primary culprit.

More often, even if we don’t fully realize it, we are using food to meet some type of emotional need. Now this might be as simple as seeking pleasure and a sense of camaraderie (such as is the case for example at a Super Bowl party or July 4 picnic); however at other times we use food to cope with our baseline stress levels, high stress events, boredom, loneliness, anxiety or sadness rather than to satisfy genuine hunger. We learn this skill very early in life when food is used to soothe, comfort, reward, and console. This learned response becomes more automatic as years progress (as we practice and perfect it) until it happens so automatically we don’t even recognize that we are doing it. Turning to food when you have emotional needs that are not being met becomes part of who we are and it can be very effective. Who hasn’t pulled out the delicious dessert after a bad day at the office and felt better or shared some ice cream with a friend to mourn a break-up. In the case of the break-up, unless you dump your mate every week, who cares about that ice cream, one day every once in a while won’t hurt your health. Unfortunately, if it’s being done every day to cope with daily issues, now THAT IS a problem. So you be the judge. How often is food your emotional enhancer or moderator? If the answer is "often" then we have some ideas below that will help you get off that chocolate-covered emotional roller coaster!

Identify the TRUE need
Often my clients say they eat out of boredom. If boredom is truly the eating trigger, then eating, while fulfilling the need, is not the best option. Since the true need that is going unfulfilled might be the need for something to do people come up with healthier ideas like: read a book, take a walk, knit, work around the house. These are all perfect matches if the trigger is truly boredom. Sometimes however people misidentify the actual need or true trigger. So in this example after really thinking about it one might realize that the boredom is actually better described as loneliness. In that case none of the activities listed above will fulfill the true need, which is companionship, or at a minimum, contact with other people. Therefore, calling a friend, going out and people watching, or taking a walk to visit some neighbors would be better choices than activities like reading a book or knitting. The better you get at identifying your "true need" in the moment, the better chance you have of identifying the most effective coping strategy to fulfill that need.

Practice Emotional Awareness
Connect. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Breathe comfortably, taking gentle and full breaths. Tune in to your body and focus on the sensations you are experiencing. Allow your stomach to rise, and then your chest. Notice the air flowing past the tip of your nose and filling your lungs. Turn your attention to how your body feels in the moment without judging or interpreting. Focus on the moment.

Observe. When you are relaxed and feeling in tune with yourself, ask yourself the following kinds of questions: What's going on? What am I sensing? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? Try to do this while maintaining the relaxation generated in the previous step.

Evaluate. Continuing in this relaxed state, think about the answers to the questions you have just posed, and based on those answers, try to tune in to your true needs. Keep in mind that you can do this at any time throughout the day. It only takes a moment or two. It is a very useful strategy to break the emotional eating cycle.

Handle your emotions now – not later.
Some people are labeled as "emotional" or "hypersensitive," while others are described as "stoic" or "emotionless." Neither extreme is ideal. It is important to be able to control and suppress your emotions in the moment if appropriate to do so but not to stuff them forever. Expressing your emotions in the right situation is equally important but may seem strange if you are the stoic one, and similarly holding them back may seem odd if you are the emotional one. Becoming skilled at managing your emotional expression so that you process your emotional experience in real time is a key to eliminating the need for other, less adaptive coping mechanisms (like overeating). Finding healthy outlets is important too; some folks use their close friends or distractions like exercising; others prefer journaling or meditating. All work well.

Pinpoint the Trigger
In addition to trying to learn as much as you can about your emotional state in the moment, it is important to identify emotional triggers. Think about what triggered your last overeating episode: Was it a specific event or a conflict? A memory? Did you have a distressing thought or series of thoughts? When you pinpoint the trigger, analyze why it had that effect on you and how you might respond to it differently, without resorting to food.

Confront the Situation
Ask yourself if you really need to eat, then try to figure out what it is you really need. Perhaps it’s a break from your routine or the task at hand. Maybe you need to relax or perhaps you just need to have some fun! If it's something deeper than that, then come to terms with what you need to do to start resolving the situation and plan firm positive actions to begin the process of fixing what’s wrong. If the problem seems too big for you to handle on your own, consider seeking the help of a professional, such as a psychologist or perhaps a qualified therapist or coach (I just happen to know where you might find a very good one at

However you choose to go about it, the important part is to plan the steps you need to take in order to change your relationship with food while working toward developing a healthy and balanced emotional life. It takes practice to identify your true needs and emotional triggers; but as you get better and better at it, you will certainly see and feel the benefits!

Are you an emotional eater? Will you try to use these tips and techniques?

Dr. Martin Binks is Clinical Director and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health PLLC. He is also Assistant Consulting Professor, Division of Medical Psychology, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center. His professional activities include direct patient care, research, consultation services and the development of evidence-based obesity and health promotion programs for healthcare, research and corporate wellness environments.

Dr. Binks received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fairleigh Dickenson University, trained at the Bronx VA Medical Center and completed pre and postdoctoral training in behavioral medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He is the former Director of Behavioral Health, Research, and New Business and Strategic Alliances at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Dr Binks has worked extensively in the areas of obesity, health & wellness promotion, neuropsychology, substance abuse treatment, post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord injury.

Dr. Binks has authored and co-authored multiple research publications and the book The Duke Diet and has appeared on MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olberman, ABC news "On Call”, NPR, Lifetime Television, WGN, 700 Club and is a featured contributor on He is regularly called upon for commentary on a wide range of health and psychological topics in a variety of national publications and websites including USA Today, Washington Post, LA Times, Oprah Magazine, GX Magazine, AOL Health, Fitness, Men’s and Women’s Health Magazines Reuters and the Associated Press. Dr. Binks has been a contributor with the Army National Guard Decade of Health and Wounded Warriors Programs and is a member of several corporate advisory boards.

His research interests include technology-based healthcare delivery, obesity treatment, non alcoholic fatty liver disease, and overall health promotion. He serves as a reviewer on several scientific journals Dr. Binks contributes to healthcare provider education through his work with students and trainees and by lecturing nationally in the areas of obesity management, health promotion and behavioral medicine. Dr. Binks is currently active in several leadership positions at the national scientific organization The Obesity Society.

Dr. Binks works directly with health coaching clients from around the world through in-person, telephone and web-based technology and also offers individual psychotherapy at the Durham, N.C., location. He can be reached through

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KIM2272 6/14/2021
I must be weird, the last thing I want to do when I'm upset is eat. Report
MILPAM3 5/18/2021
It would be better to write out your frustrations than eat chocolate, which is what I do when DH makes me angry. Report
EMGERBER 4/11/2021
Yes I can be an emotional eater but I am working on being mindful of my emotions. Report
GEORGE815 3/17/2021
Thanks Report
Great article. Thanks for sharing it. Report
ELRIDDICK 2/16/2021
Thanks for sharing Report
RAZZOOZLE 11/11/2020
thank you Report
RACHAEL2020 8/1/2020
Chocolate is my emotional trigger. Report
CD10676776 6/20/2020
Excellent article, thanks! Report
Thank you. I needed this today. Love you Sparkpeople!! Report
just about anything that is chocolate will most likely end up in my tummy Report
Thank you pin pointed some of my struggles. Report
Great article! Thanks! Report
Great article, thank you very much. Report
So needed, thanks. Report
Thank you for all of the helpful strategies! Report
Nice article Report
Helpful information! Report
If these stress foods did the opposite would you still be concerned?? Think about it. Before I got married, eating was a burden!!! I got so think my friends really got concerned. Then I found love, eating together became fun. I gained 30#"s!!!!!! So you are thinking, oh my she must have been to thin, and I was!!! But now, not fitting into my clothes isn't fun either!!! So Spark People is helping me (and you). This is just a reminder, to thin is also not healthy, and really we all want the perfect body BUT #1 for me is my health. I meditate everyday, and when I do I SEE my perfect body. Spark People helps me be accountable and honest. Welcome to a journey of looking at YOU and deciding what YOU want for YOUR life!!! Report
I think the best motivation for me is to look at myself naked in front of a full length mirror on a regular basis because clothing can cover a multitude of sins. If that doesn't scare me into following a sensible food plan, nothing else will. Report
Awesome article- great strategies for tuning in and identifying emotions.
I can apply these techniques to my many stress responses, such as too many computer games... Report
Wow! this is a great article! I've known for a long time that I'm an emotional eater...and a closet eater. I'm still struggling to get this under control. These are some great suggestions. I think my biggest problem is that I don't know exactly what my "root problem" is. I have a few ideas, but knothing really solid. In any case, I enjoyed this post! Report
Great article, thanks so much! Report
great article Report
Awesome startegies!! Report
This is why every other diet has failed me... at the root of it all, I treat all my emotional needs with food. Report
I know I eat sweets for stress and emotional reasons. Just reading about it again makes me more aware of when and why I'm opening the cupboard. Thinking about what and why you are putting food in your mouth makes you think twice on if you really need (or want) that food. Report
I am most definitely an emotional eater and I have known for a while. I haven't been able to master the art of controlling this though! This article was very informative and helpful, thanks! Report
Oh yes I am an emotional eater! This is helpful for me as I am just learning this about myself. Report
Thanks for the great information... Report
I will try to keep these techniques in mind. In fact I'm saving this article until I get new ink and can print it out for future reference. Report
Thank you very much. This article is very timely for me. Emotional eating has been my elephant in the room for a long time, but only just now do I feel ready to acknowledge and hopefully learn to deal with it. This article is a wonderful help, I have it saved in my Sparkfavorites and bookmarked in my browser. Report
This article has been a wake-up call for me. I definitely see the connection with my emotional eating and obesity. PTSD is a big problem with a lot of us. My blog, Acquaintance Rape, explains why I'm afraid to get thin and look attractive, even after all these years.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will also share this with my family and friends.
I recently read an article on HealthDay that said carbohydrates increased Seratonin levels.

That would complicate emotional eating even more and would account for those who are "sensualists", since Seratonin is our "feelgood" and "reward" brain chemical.

Additionally, most of the Seratonin in our bodies is actually found in the stomach. Just applying logic to this arrangement would suggest that our bodies are designed to reward us when our stomachs are full.

The combination of our bodies response to additional carbohydrates with learned behavior would put an overeating addiction right up there with a drug addiction, IMO. It would also seem to explain why those who diet can lose weight, but tend to gain back over time rather than maintain their lower weight, because we HAVE to eat.

There are no drugs that we Have to ingest. Report
I just finished listening to the audiobook "Women, Food and God," by Geneen Roth. She sums up emotional eating so eloquently. It seems as if quiet, calm mindfulness is the key to overcoming compulsive eating. There are so many reasons to eat besides hunger-- I'm happy! I'm sad! I'm lonely! It's Friday night! It's Saturday! It's Saturday night! It's Sunday night! It's sad Monday! It's hump-day! Eating always was the response, to every emotion. Crazy. Report
Thank-you for stating facts in everyday terms. I am so tired of psycho-babble and doctor-speak I had about given up on reading articles by medical practitioners trying to find answers to this dilemma.

Your strategies for identification and techniques for dealing with this issue are very informative, and I hope to be able to employ them in short order.

Thank-you very much. Report
Unfortunately, I am one of those who eats for pleasure. I don't know how to deal with being a sensualist! LOL Report
I have been an emotional eater for years and have read many articles. This has got to be the best one yet. Not only does it give you the statigies to figure out your triggers, it gives you techniques to overcome them. Report
A little late but informative when i read it later or whenever.
my mom had a pacemaker put in the third of this month
and i was upset and of course ate and gained 3 pounds
yuck! not happy times. But i guess this article could help me for future
emotional eating times. Report
Great and timely article for me right now. Going in my faves too. Report
I so need this reminder!!! Thank you for the strategies. Report
Exactly what I needed today. Thank you for posting this article. Report
Wow, I think that this is a very insightful blog that is full of helpful and thought-provoking information. I belong to the Emotional Eaters SparkTeam because I have a problem with emotional binge eating. There are so many people that suffer from this and beat themselves up; it just becomes a never ending cycle of failure.

As team leader of the Central IL SparkTeam, I plan to post a thread with a link to this blog and see if the team can get a discussion going about team members' personal experiences.

Thank you for providing this valuable information, I really do appreciate it! Report
Great article. I've found so many great resources for emotional eating on this site, and sometimes when I find them, I feel like they were meant just for me. The timing of this one was great. Report
Great article! Report
Good article. I am an emotional eater. Sometimes I can control it but other times I can't. I'm going to use the tips in your to help me. Report
I just sent this to 10 of my friends. good informative read. Report
I really needed to read something on this topic during the past few days and this contains very good information. When I go way off program, I know there is something else that is driving that urge. I am going to save this to my SparkFavorites so I can go back and reread it when I want to find a way to regain my control.. Report
I just had two (extremely difficult) midterms. I get back to my apartment, starving and stressed. But the only snack I have is carrots and hummus. I eat half a bag of carrots. win?
Anyway, these strategies are all good, but I find that when I want to do a little mindless eating, my chances of resisting are 50/50. So I make sure I don't have any unhealthy stuff. works pretty well. Report