min read

Why emotional eating causes us to crave certain foods

Do you find yourself reaching for a cookie when work gets busy, or curling up with a pizza when you feel lonely? Emotional eating is common, here is how to overcome it.

Written by
Sanchia Parker
Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist
Reviewed by

Why do we eat? 

While we eat food for survival and to fuel our brain and body, we also eat for many other reasons. 

Food has many different roles in our life, and we don’t always eat just because we are hungry. We might eat for social reasons, celebration, as a reward or as a result of our emotions.  

However, while it’s perfectly fine to enjoy foods through celebration and social reasons every now and again, it can be problematic if we start to use food to soothe negative emotions with emotional eating.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when food is used to relieve negative feelings and provide temporary comfort. Experiencing negative emotions such as stress, boredom or loneliness can be uncomfortable. 

For some people, eating certain foods can relieve them of these feelings and make them feel better in the moment. But while eating may feel good in the moment, the feelings that triggered the eating are still there.

Someone may reach for a tub of ice cream after a stressful day, a bowl of nachos to make them feel better after falling out with friends, or a block of chocolate to relieve the anxiety of an upcoming exam. 

Emotional eating is used to fill an emotional need, rather than a physical need. 

Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems. In fact, it can make the feelings worse, as not only does the emotional problem remain, but feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety can result from eating less healthy foods.

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Common causes of emotional eating

Negative emotions such as:

  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Resentment
  • Shame.

How to overcome emotional eating

First identify if what you are feeling is emotional or physical hunger. The image below explains more about the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. 

Credits to @hollyrnold_nutrition for the infographic

If you notice you are experiencing physical hunger, find something healthy to eat and go ahead and enjoy it! 

If you notice you are experiencing emotional hunger try these tips below to help overcome it:

1. Identify the emotion you are feeling

Identify the emotion you are feeling, and whether a situation has triggered that emotion. Are you angry every time you talk to your boss? Lonely during the evenings? Anxious about an appointment?

2. Consider how to soothe the emotion

Make a list of 4-5 things you can do that might address what your body needs. 

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  • Reach out to a family member or friend
  • Join a local club
  • Offer to walk a neighbour's dog in the morning (always a great way to strike up a conversation with others!)


  • Try a new healthy recipe
  • Visit the library and check out some books or magazines
  • Listen to a podcast


  • Run a warm bath, and use fancy bubble bath
  • Dim the lights, light some candles and put on some relaxing music
  • Sit outside, close your eyes and take ten slow, deep breaths

Start to become aware during the day of what you are feeling. Notice if you are starting to feel too stressed, tired, lonely or bored. Act to manage these emotions before they escalate into strong cravings for foods.

3. What for, why now, what else?

The next time you notice an urge for emotional eating, check with the following questions first;

  • What for? Why am I reaching for this chocolate? Is it because I truly want this, or am I just feeling stressed/bored?
  • Why now? What is it about this moment that is making me want to reach for chocolate? Has something else happened?
  • What else? - Is there anything else I could do to invest my energy more positively and to help me feel good?

4. Look after yourself

When we are emotional it’s harder to pay attention to our hunger and fullness signals as stress and high emotions can mask these signals.

It’s during times of heightened emotions when we are more likely to revert back to old habits and forget the new, healthier habits we have made. 

So aim to fill your days with plenty of activities to look after yourself, which will naturally help manage strong emotions. This includes: 

  • Activities that provide you with value and meaning
  • Connection with loved ones and others
  • Sleep
  • Rest
  • Exercise
  • Nourishing food
  • Playful fun
  • Mindfulness

Food may help relieve negative emotions in the short term, but addressing the feelings behind the cravings is important in the long term. Work to find alternative ways to deal with negative emotions to feel better, and manage emotional eating. 

Lose weight, feel better
Lose 10% of your weight in 6 months.
Start Online Visit
Lose weight, feel better
Lose 10% of your weight in 6 months.
Start Online Visit
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