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How to decode the triggers that lead to your emotional eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

Eating for emotional reasons is normal—we all do it! As humans we associate food with pleasure and comfort from our first moments of feeding, to birthday cakes, to pleasant memories of backyard burgers with our families.

Food adds pleasure to our lives in so many ways that are deeply tied to traditions as well as our emotions and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that!

Why you eat is as important as what you eat!

In my last video, Why do I keep struggling with the same eating issues?, I shared the realization that why I was eating affected every decision that followed, including my food choices.

I asked you to think about why you eat, when you eat, and what you eat so we could do a little more work to figure out the clues left by your emotional eating triggers. Thank you for all of your comments and insights!

Look for clues in your emotions.

Sometimes we can feel like eating all day, but nothing we eat seems to satisfy our desire for food. When this happens, we know there is probably something besides hunger triggering our desire to eat.
When we recognize that eating isn’t going to satisfy this particular “hunger,” we can take a closer look at the emotions that may be driving the cravings.
Our emotions at these times are clues that point us toward what our true needs are.

When a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating probably won’t satisfy it, but your emotions can give you clues about how to meet your true needs.

The Overeating Cycle

Eating out of habit or for emotional reasons can create a predictable pattern called the Overeating Cycle.

Am-I-Hungry-Overeating-Cycle

The Overeating Cycle involves a seemingly endless pattern of overeating, feeling guilty, restricting or depriving yourself of food as punishment, then overeating again. (A pattern I call the eat-repent-repeat cycle.)
In order to break this vicious cycle, it is necessary to take a closer look at why we eat.
Want to learn more about the Overeating Cycle? Read this post.

Decode your emotions.

Identifying why you eat is sometimes the easy part.

I am sad. I was mad. I feel lonely.
So, you know you eat when you’re sad. Now, what do you do about it?

Many of you shared that you struggle with emotional eating. Use the fill-in-the-blank script I shared with you in the video to decode you emotions:

  • Think about a situation when you are more likely to overeat.
  • Identify the emotion(s) you typically experience in that situation.
  • Think about what that emotion is telling you about your underlying need(s).
  • Now, what is one step you can take to meet that need more effectively than eating?

Please post your insights in the comments section below. (Use your first name only and don’t be concerned if your comment doesn’t show up right away; we have to approve them to prevent spam.)

In this video, I shed light on a very common but often unrecognized trigger for overeating.

Did you enjoy this post? Check out these other posts on emotional eating and mindful eating:

Why do I overeat when I’m stressed?

What if I binge because I feel a lack of love and belonging?

How to Make Sense of Your Eating Issues

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

7 Comments

  1. Norine says:

    Thank you for the video, I believe this will truly help me.

    The one that came to mind that I am unsure of:
    When I wake up from an afternoon nap (needed as my body is recovering)
    I feel like I am hungry for something sweet or salty
    I Need – ??
    I Will – drink a glass of water and get up and move around.

    I am not sure what my need would be

  2. Donna says:

    I just want to tell Dr. May that this is the first program that has really effectively helped me overcome my yoyo dieting. I have had eating disorder issues since my early teens, and am now a 64 yr old woman that is finally finding a bit of peace with herself and her body! I’ve gone through therapy and group, but your mindful eating program and videos are crucial to my recovery as well. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  3. Julie says:

    When I get in a funk in the evening I feel frustrated, entitled and the surprising one hopeless. I need affirmation or hope. I will work on a jigsaw puzzle.
    Eating has been an issue with me since my teen years. Back then I would binge and then exercise a lot. About 2 months ago I decided I needed to understand why I do what I do. First I bought your book Dr May and began reading it. I also began attending a program. That part has been difficult to settle into but I believe I have finally found the group I fit in with. So over the last 2 months a lot of things have come up but not yet really been dealt with. I determine to do the body-mind-heart scan but by evening I am in total rebellion. Last night after a good day. I cooked a healthy supper overate at supper and immediately ate a sleeve of thin lemon cookies and later some Fritos. I can’t even remember the last time I ate that many cookies. It was like I was miserable and wanted to increase my misery.
    I am thankful to be getting to the bottom of this and finding freedom! Thank you so much for providing this opportunity.

  4. Al says:

    i have a hard time finding successful alternatives to my emotional eating. Do you have any suggestions in addition to “Call a friend”, “Take a hot shower”, or “get more therapy”?

    • As you learned in the video, your emotions often hint at your underlying needs. By figuring out what your need is, you will be better able to figure out what you can do to meet your needs best – much more specific than “Call a friend.”

  5. Shiva says:

    It’s always easy to call it stress due to what has happened to me without my control….. and veeeery hard to find the actual feeling and and related needs and alternative actions.
    Thanks for all your videos and information

    • True; stress is a pretty generic term describing how our body (and mind) responds to certain situations. The underlying need could be anything from calm to security to control to pleasure and so on… Any action that will bring you a baby step toward meeting one of those needs is a good start.

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