Emotional eating is a recurrent pattern of eating in response to your feelings, not physical hunger. It can take the form of reaching for a tub of ice cream when you’re sad, a bag of chips when you’re anxious, chocolate when you’re happy, surrounding yourself with your favourite foods when you’re lonely, or compulsively eating everything in sight when you’re bored. The key is that your eating habits are tied to your emotions, not to the signals your body is sending you. Somehow, the connection between eating and nourishing your body has become lost.

It’s no surprise that we connect food to emotional well-being. From the day we’re born, our first experiences of being loved and cared for come from the closeness we feel when we’re being fed. This connection is very strong, and is later reinforced by the messages we get from our loved ones. Food is intimately tied to celebration, from birthdays to weddings (think of that show, “I do, Let’s eat!”). We may have been comforted with food early on, from chicken soup when we had a cold to a chocolate bar when we felt down. We may have also been taught to eat everything on our plate, or witnessed a family member struggle with emotional eating. All of these sent us the message that food is somehow about more than just eating for survival.

Everyone uses food for emotional reasons sometimes, but emotional eating results from developing an unhealthy relationship with food. Almost everyone has a “go-to” food when they’re stressed out, or has a tendency to overeat around the holidays. But when turning to food to cope with unpleasant emotions or situations becomes a regular occurrence, it can be a problem. Food is used to comfort yourself, cope with stress, or relieve feelings of boredom and loneliness. Food is seen as the ultimate pick-me-up, but also as a source of angst, as overeating can lead to feelings of helplessness and guilt. All of these are signs that you have an unhealthy relationship with food.

It can be very hard to break away from this pattern of emotional eating because it’s so easy to turn to food. Turning to food gives you instant comfort, and this feeling can be very powerful. What’s more, there is probably a biological link between certain comfort foods (especially those high in carbohydrates, like sweets and chips) and the brain chemicals that are correlated with elevated moods (like serotonin). Finally, because eating shifts the focus away from feelings and situations that are too difficult to face, it prevents you from having to deal with them. As a result, emotional eating becomes powerfully reinforced, and over time you can come to rely on it as your primary coping mechanism.

So what can you do about it? First, you have to recognize what your triggers are. Are there any specific feelings or situations that send you running to the fridge? Is there a connection between the kinds of foods you turn to and your feelings? Keeping a diary can help. You also need to find other ways of coping, like finding a healthy outlet for your emotions, or using problem solving techniques for situations that keep coming up.  Talking to a friend, working out your problems, or learn stress management techniques can all help.  You can break free from this destructive pattern!