Are You An 'Emotional Eater'? Here's How To Find Out

Are you in control of your eating habits, or are your emotions? These ten questions can help you find out.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 10, 2024

Emotional eating is the phenomenon where individuals consume food in response to their feelings rather than physical hunger. Widely recognized by research, this behavior poses a significant risk factor for weight gain and contributes to the prevalence of obesity. It's even associated with recurrent weight gain over time.

Unlike physical hunger, which typically develops gradually and can be satisfied with any type of food, emotional hunger strikes suddenly and often triggers specific cravings for comfort foods. Various negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety and loneliness, can prompt emotional eating, although positive emotions like joy and celebration can also play a role. For many individuals, food serves as a comfort during times of stress, sadness or boredom.

The Emotional Eater Questionnaire (EEQ)

In 2012, Garaulet and colleagues published a study validating the emotional eater questionnaire (EEQ), a tool designed to help individuals identify their emotional eating tendencies. By answering a series of questions, you can gain insights into how often you use food to manage your emotions. The items are as follows:

  1. Do weight scales have a great power over you? Can they change your mood?
  2. Do you crave specific foods?
  3. Is it difficult for you to stop eating sweet things, especially chocolate?
  4. Do you have problems controlling the amount of certain types of food you eat?
  5. Do you eat when you are stressed, angry or bored?
  6. Do you eat more of your favorite food and with less control when you are alone?
  7. Do you feel guilty when you eat "forbidden" foods, like sweets or snacks?
  8. Do you feel less control over your diet when you are tired after work at night?
  9. When you overeat while on a diet, do you give up and start eating without control, particularly food that you think is fattening?
  10. How often do you feel that food controls you, rather than you controlling food?

Understanding your emotional eating patterns is crucial for physical and emotional well-being. Mindful eating, as suggested by research, is a remedy. It is a structured approach that emphasizes slowing down and attentively observing food choices and eating behaviors. It encourages being fully present during meals, which enhances the enjoyment and significance of the dining experience. Here are two effective methods to incorporate mindful eating into your routine:

1. Identify Triggers

Identifying triggers is a pivotal step in understanding and ultimately overcoming emotional eating patterns. Once you pinpoint the precise situations, emotions or thoughts that prompt the urge to eat emotionally, develop strategies to address them without turning to food. Here are some ways:

  • Self-reflection. Reflect on past instances when you turned to food for comfort and analyze the circumstances surrounding these episodes. Pay attention to recurring themes, such as stressful work deadlines, relationship conflicts, feelings of loneliness or boredom.
  • Emotional awareness. According to a study, acting with awareness and attention can reduce emotional eating by helping people make more conscious food choices. To do this, notice any subtle shifts in mood or energy levels throughout the day and identify the emotions that tend to trigger the urge to eat emotionally, such as anxiety, sadness, anger or boredom.
  • Journaling. Keep a food and mood diary to track your eating habits and emotional triggers over time. Record details about what you eat, when you eat and how you're feeling before and after eating. This can help you identify patterns and gain insights into the relationship between your emotions and eating behaviors.

2. Make Conscious Meal Choices

This proactive strategy empowers individuals to make informed and health-conscious food decisions, reducing impulsive eating and emotional triggers. Here's how to approach it:

  • Meal planning. Research suggests that meal planning is associated with lower odds of obesity in women and reduced risk of obesity in men. So take the time to plan your meals for the week ahead, considering factors such as nutritional balance, portion sizes and dietary preferences. Include a variety of nutrient-dense foods from all food groups to ensure balanced and satisfying meals, minimizing the temptation to consume unhealthy or convenience foods.
  • Mindful shopping. When grocery shopping, consciously select foods aligned with your health goals. Avoid trigger foods and highly processed snacks that may contribute to emotional eating. Opt for whole, minimally processed foods that nourish your body and support overall well-being.
  • Meal environment. Create a conducive atmosphere that promotes mindful eating and minimizes distractions. Set the table thoughtfully, eliminate electronic devices or television and focus on savoring each bite of your meal. This intentional dining environment reduces mindless eating, allowing you to be fully present during meals, recognize hunger cues and practice portion control.

Remember, progress may be gradual, but each step toward mindful eating and emotional awareness enhances your relationship with food. Stay flexible in your approach, acknowledging life's unexpected challenges.

Struggling with emotional eating? Take the Emotional Eater Questionnaire to know if you need professional help.

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