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kybryl2's picture Karen Bryla McNees, EdD, RD
Registered Dietitian
College or Department
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(859) 257-9355
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The holidays tend to evoke a range of emotions for people, and food seems to be everywhere this time of year. When we eat for reasons other than physical hunger, it is considered emotional eating. We often think about emotional eating as eating in response to negative emotions such as stress, loneliness, or sadness. But, emotional eating can also happen with positive emotions, such as celebration or reward. Let's talk about what emotional eating is and how we can break the cycle.

There are some known hallmarks of emotional eating, especially when they are in response to negative emotions:

  • "Emotional hunger” tends to come on suddenly, leading you to potentially eat quickly and in private. In this state, a full stomach will not satisfy you because you are eating in an attempt to fill an emotional need, not a physical one.
  • Craving specific comfort foods may often accompany emotional eating. Most of us crave foods like chips or ice cream, not carrots or kale! And there is a reason for that. Comfort foods tend to give our brain a "reward" which can temporarily make us feel good. The downside to this is that we "learn" to connect uncomfortable emotions with eating, creating a habit loop that can be tough to break. We also don't learn how to cope with negative emotions in non-food ways, and therefore, trap ourselves in a vicious cycle.

Not sure if you are emotionally eating? One of the biggest “tells” is how you feel afterward. If you feel pangs of guilt or shame after eating, that is probably a signal that you did not honor your body's true needs, either physically or emotionally. While it's easy to label guilt and shame as "bad" emotions, they can actually serve as useful clues about our inner psyche as we work to learn about ourselves and make better choices. 

One of the most effective strategies for managing emotional eating is to give yourself permission to eat any food. Sounds weird, right? We're not advising you to actually go and eat every food; simply give yourself permission to have any food, if it serves your body's true needs. Most days, eating lean protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will serve your body's true needs. But, some days eating a little chocolate might too. Research tells us that having strict "food rules" and routinely depriving yourself of foods you enjoy, actually makes emotional eating more likely to occur.

With the holidays approaching, it is important to acknowledge that food is part of the joy for most of us. You may have traditional family foods that you only get to eat during the holidays. Or maybe you love to bake (and eat!) holiday cookies with your kids or grandkids. Maybe you love to enjoy a few holiday drinks from Starbucks. Those things are nothing to feel guilty or shameful about because food isn't only about nourishment. Occasionally eating food because it brings us joy or connects us with others or honors tradition is a sign of a body and mind in balance.


Delay. Distract. Decide.

  • Delay making a decision for 10 minutes; if you wait, the urge may pass

  • Distract yourself with non-food activities

  • Decide with intention, whether or not you will eat

5-5-5-5-5 Exercise

Write down responses to the following prompts and refer to them when you feel emotional hunger:

  • 5 ways I can relax

  • 5 people I can connect with

  • 5 places I can go to calm down

  • 5 non-food activities to distract me

  • 5 helpful things I can say to myself

If you want to learn more about emotional eating and how you can work to overcome it, you can watch this 30-minute presentation from my colleague Vanessa Oliver. Visit the EatWell section on the UK HR Health and Wellness page for more information on how we can support your nutritional goals.