Millions of people eat their feelings. This is evidenced by the number of people with eating disorders. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders it is estimated that 24 million Americans suffer with eating disorders (i.e., binge eating and restrictive eating). This is an issue that impacts not only women, but all races, genders, and ages struggle with emotional eating.

One reason Americans struggle with over-eating and under-eating is because of stress and emotional upset. The brain experiences a decrease in certain hormones when feeling sad or overwhelmed. When we feel sad we want to do something to feel better. The brain remembers that food has been able to produce happy feelings in the past. Research shows the “reward section” of the brain is triggered when feeling sad, and this triggers cravings for food that produced happier feelings in the past (Gupta, Psychology Today). Similarly the brain can start to depend on food to produce happy feelings. Some say that food cravings are similar to drug addiction. A research study suggests that individuals that overeat have dopamine (a chemical in the brain responsible for mood) levels similar to individuals addicted to drugs (Columbia University). People use drugs to avoid feelings just like people can use food to avoid feelings.

What happens is we start to feel overwhelmed and stressed and the body responds physically to the emotional upset. The body’s reaction triggers the brain that something is wrong and you will start to crave foods, usually sugary and fattening foods, because these foods made you feel better in the past. The brain knows consuming this food will increase the level of happy chemicals in the brain. The craving can be hard at times because the brain and the body will have a strong physical reaction, similar to drug withdrawal. The longer you try to abstain from the food you are craving, the stronger the craving for the food will become.

There are social expectations about certain foods as well. Perhaps we are conditioned to find food pleasurable. Most parties, social gatherings, and fellowship with others involves food. These moments are fun and we likely feel happy. Therefore, we overeat due to emotional upset because we associate food with feeling better and happier times. Eating does make us feel better, but it is short lived. Once the food is consumed the upset emotion lingers. Then we are left wanting to find ways to reduce the upset, we feel guilty for eating, and the cycle of overeating begins again.

We binge eat and overeat during times of emotional upset because we are not aware of how we are feeling. We live in a fast-paced, busy society and we rarely have time for self-evaluation and reflection. Many Americans lack emotional intelligence. I used to work with many clients that could only identify a few feelings, happy, angry, and sad. However they were not able to tell me how this emotion felt in the body or the emotional cues to these feelings. In other words, you can probably list some feelings, but you may have a harder time identifying the feeling for yourself. All most people know is they are craving certain foods.

Food cravings makes people feel weak, frustrated, and out of control. It is more frustrating when you are trying to lose weight or maintain weight and you cannot overcome the cravings. You crave and overeat due to biological processes and because you are most likely feeling stressed, angry, or sad. This can be overcome. It takes some awareness and intentional behavior changes, but emotional eating can be overcome.

1. Evaluate your feelings. When you notice a craving for food or you realize you have eaten more than you like, stop, count to 10, and take 3 deep breaths. This will slow you down long enough to ask, “how am I feeling?” If you struggle with this, scan your body from head to toe and notice any areas that are tight, sore, and tense. Is your heart beating fast? Is your body hot? These are signals you could be feeling stressed and overwhelmed. If you still cannot identify if you are feeling stressed or emotionally overwhelmed think about what is going on in your life. Evaluate your to-do list, your priorities, your relationships, and your environment. If there is a lot going on then you have the right to be stressed.

2. Rather then going straight for the food try taking a walk, walk some stairs, listen to music, or drink some water. This is called distraction. Distraction behaviors help the craving pass because you occupy your attention with something else. Cravings are like a tidal wave. They can come quickly and from out of nowhere. They seem very intense and like you will be swept away. Hang tight! The wave will subside. When you get a craving, hang tight, it will pass! But doing something else in the meantime will make the wait not so difficult.

3. Plan your food for the day. Pack your breakfast, AM and PM snack, lunch, and dinner. If you have these meals with you, pre-prepared, you can eat these foods instead of the fattening, sugary foods you will crave when upset. This will help you reward your brain and improve upset feelings but you can rest assured you are eating healthy foods that are not going to sabotage your goals.

4. Try doing something else that will make you feel good and happy. You can avoid stress eating if you can find other ways to reduce stress. What are other behaviors/activities/or people that make you laugh, relax, and feel better. Give these things a try instead of grabbing a snack you will regret later.

5. What you think about the situation will impact your reaction to the situation. We tend to justify our bad food choices in the moment. But let’s reframe some of that thinking. You deserve to be healthy. You deserve to feel happy and healthy. You can be happy and healthy at the same time. You can make choices about your body that are rewarding and relaxing. You choose to feel better by making healthy choices. When you get a craving for something and you are triggered to eat say these things to yourself. Say them over and over. Say them out loud. Thinking this way will influence a healthier option.

Emotional overeating works. That is why you keep doing it. You are smart to learn ways to manage your stress. Emotional eating has been your way of taking care of yourself. However you are also aware enough to see how overeating is harmful to your weight loss, health, and your body. Good for you for wanting to make a change! Remember eating is a way to fuel the body, not cure the body from emotional upset. Vow to daily become more self-aware. Agree to slow down, relax, and evaluate your mood and your behaviors. You may have a day where you eat more out of stress and upset than you like. There will be good days and bad days. But the more you practice the things above, the more likely you are to avoid cravings and overeat, and the more likely you are to feel better overall.