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How to stop emotionally eating

In partnership with Georgie Britton

Find yourself reaching for the bikkie jar too often?

30-year old man wearing a blue collared shirt laughing while sitting at a cafe and eating his lunch
30-year old man wearing a blue collared shirt laughing while sitting at a cafe and eating his lunch

Do you have a tendency to reach for the biscuit jar or pick up some hot chips when you’ve had a bad day? You’re not alone. Emotional eating is common among Australians and can have a range of physical and psychological effects. We spoke to Georgie Britton, accredited practising Dietitian and Allied Health Coach at Honeysuckle Health, to find out what emotional eating is all about and how to stop it.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to internal emotional signals, such as stress or sadness. Research shows it’s positively associated with overeating, intake of energy-dense foods, higher weight and higher body dissatisfaction.

“When we experience emotional eating, it’s not typically the healthy options we turn to, but rather high-calorie, salty, fatty and sweet foods,” says Georgie. “We’ve all been there – turning to chocolate or chips to provide comfort after a stressful day! Doing this occasionally isn’t harmful, but if we’re commonly using food or even fluids such as alcohol or soft drinks as a coping strategy for our emotions, it can affect both our physical and psychological health.”

Related: 10 signs you’re a sugar addict

What can cause emotional eating?

“Major life events, or more commonly daily life struggles, can trigger the feelings that lead to emotional eating,” says Georgie. “One of the biggest troubles with emotional eating is that after the immediate pleasure of eating is gone, the feelings that caused us to emotionally eat often remain.”

Even though emotional eating doesn’t fix our woes, it can easily become a habit. Researchers have found that high-fat and high-sugar foods change our brain chemistry and trick us into wanting more of them.

Young woman wearing a white collared shirt and cutting an orange on her kitchen bench

Emotional hunger vs. physical hunger

“If you find yourself commonly turning to food to provide comfort, it may be helpful to consider and acknowledge whether you’re experiencing emotional hunger or true physical hunger,” says Georgie.

According to Georgie, some signs of emotional hunger include:

  • It comes on suddenly and feels like an urgent need

  • It usually involves cravings for comfort foods

  • It persists even when your physical hunger is satisfied

  • It can lead to feelings of guilt and shame

Signals of physical hunger include:

  • It comes on gradually and doesn’t feel urgent

  • It isn’t limited to cravings for comfort foods

  • It goes away when you’ve eaten an adequate amount

  • It doesn't create negative feelings

How to treat emotional eating

No matter how long you’ve been engaging in emotional eating, it’s possible to gain control over your eating behaviours with some dedication and persistence. Here are Georgie’s top five tips to overcome emotional eating: 

  1. 1

    Avoid skipping meals and establish a regular eating pattern

  2. 2

    Satisfy yourself with balanced meals that include high-quality protein, lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, and a moderate serving of grains or starchy foods

  3. 3

    Establish good sleep hygiene by being consistent with your routine, creating a dark and relaxing space, and avoiding electronic devices before going to bed

  4. 4

    Try journalling. Writing down the feelings and events that trigger your emotional eating response will help you to identify patterns

  5. 5

    Before you reach for a snack, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If the answer is “no”, try to replace the eating behaviour with another habit. This could include taking a bath, going for a walk, calling a friend, or listening to music. Over time, you will turn to this healthier behaviour to provide comfort.

Related: How to break or change a habit

Gaining control of emotional eating

If you’ve tried to improve your eating behaviours but continue to experience a pattern of emotional eating, check in with your doctor, dietitian or mental health specialist. “Sometimes there are physical and psychological obstacles that stand in the way and a health professional can help you work through them,” says Georgie.

The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Georgie Britton at a kitchen bench wearing a striped shirt

In partnership with

Georgie Britton

Georgie Britton is an accredited practicing dietitian with widespread nutrition knowledge across a range of health settings. She is passionate about supporting people to improve their health and wellbeing by giving them the tools they need to make better food choices. Currently, she works at Honeysuckle Health where her role includes nutritional counselling for people with chronic diseases. Not surprisingly, Georgie loves cooking and sharing home-cooked meals with friends and family. Her favourite dish is a bowl of homemade fettucine with crisp sage and roasted pumpkin from her garden, lots of extra virgin olive oil, and a peppery rocket salad, all served with a glass of red wine and finished with some dark chocolate.