March 25, 2022
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Help with Emotional Eating: How to Overcome Caregiver Stress

Do you need help with emotional eating?

Many caregivers turn to food for comfort, especially during difficult times. 

For some, it’s a way to cope with all the stress of taking care of their loved ones. For others, it’s already become an uncontrollable urge. 

So how do you know if you need help with emotional eating?

Let’s explore it today. 

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is defined as overeating in response to negative situations.

Individuals turn to food for comfort or to fill emotional needs rather than satisfy their hunger.

Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by our emotions, specifically stress.

And according to Harvard Medical School, emotional or physical distress leads to increased intake of foods high in sugar, fat, or both.

Occasionally, it's not always negative to use food as a reward or as a form of celebration. 

But if you use it as a coping mechanism in stressful situations, you'll get stuck in an unhealthy cycle.


At the moment, eating comfort foods may bring relief and make you feel good. The frustrating part is it only works for a short time.

The good feeling fades away when you stop eating and worse, guilt kicks in.  

You blame yourself for not having more self-control. 

It makes you feel powerless over food and your moods. And it exacerbates the situation.

The difference between emotional hunger vs. physical hunger 

Before you break the cycle, you must know the difference between emotional hunger vs physical hunger.

It can be more complicated than it looks. And it's more likely if you're used  to using food to cope with your emotions.

It's also common to confuse both. But there are several characteristics that set them apart.

And knowing these differences is the first step toward overcoming emotional eating habits.

So, here are some questions that can help you in differentiating them:

Does hunger come suddenly or gradually?

Emotional hunger comes suddenly. It comes at you in a split second and makes you feel overwhelmed and rushed. 

It takes a while for physical hunger to start and it comes on more slowly. There isn't such a strong desire to eat. 

And it doesn't need to be satisfied right away unless you haven't eaten for a long time.

Are you craving a specific food?

help with emotional eating - sweet and savory

Emotional hunger is often linked to cravings such as sweets and savory food. 

The problem is, your body cannot distinguish whether you’re eating for fuel or for comfort. 

Food has the power to fire up powerful memories in us. And most people relate to cravings as something that put them at ease in the past. 

If you’re craving, ask yourself what kind of situation you’re in. Become aware if what you’re craving is a want or need. 

Are you experiencing mindless eating?

Mindless eating is when someone eats without paying attention to what they're putting in their mouth.

And this is more common than we think. 

We tend to get so busy that we tend to multitask. Instead of sitting down to eat in peace, we ‌do it in front of our computers or TV. 

We’ve become so preoccupied with being busy that we are no longer aware of the habits we’ve created, including the harmful ones. 

Our bodies become accustomed to these habits and it becomes automatic instead. 

Is hunger coming from the head or stomach?

One of the differences between stomach hunger and head hunger is the urgency. 

Stomach hunger is biological. It means the body is sending you the signal that it’s running out of fuel and energy. 

The body usually takes six to eight hours to digest food. This means there’s no need for you to consume food in between the time period. 

Stomach hunger also comes in gradually and builds into hunger pangs. And it doesn’t choose what type or kind of food you consume. 

And when you eat, you usually feel satisfied. 

On the other hand, head hunger is often emotional and abrupt. 

Hunger is triggered by external factors. It can be a stressful situation or an uncomfortable event. 

And because our brain craves comfort, we pacify our anxieties through food. 

Another concern that most deal with is binge eating disorders, where an individual can’t fight the urge to eat even when they feel full. 

Binge eating may relieve negative feelings at the moment. But it puts you more at risk in the long run. 

Symptoms can include the inability to stop eating or rapidly consuming large amounts of food. 

It can also mean stocking up on food for eating later in secret.  Some can seem normal when eating in public but gorge themselves when they’re alone. 

And others eat continuously throughout the day. 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, then it’s time to reach out and get help. 

What triggers emotional eating?

Like anything you want to change, the first thing you need to do is to be aware that the problem exists. 

As caregivers who face higher stress levels at work, you are more prone to experience eating disorders as a coping mechanism. 

A 2006 study found that 63% of caregivers had worse eating habits than non-caregivers. 

Family caregivers spend an average of 20 hours per week caring for their loved ones. On the other hand, 13% provide at least 40 hours or more. 

Here are the most common triggers that cause emotional eating in caregivers. 


Caregiving causes emotional and physical strain. Many caregivers are always on call. 

And this leaves them little time for family, friends and even themselves. 

It can also be because they're worried about mom or dad, who has dementia. And they don't want to let them down. 

Or, parents may soon move to hospice. And it's a difficult time for the family to deal with.


Caregivers may grieve a parent's health decline and resort to certain foods for comfort. 

Warm apple pie, hearty beef stew - comfort meals like these bring back memories of "simpler" times. 

Most remember their elderly parents back when they were healthy. Or how the family ate together every night. 


Guilt is another tough emotional trigger. 

Switching roles with a parent can be emotionally challenging. 

And, it becomes hard to set boundaries between self-care and selfishness. 

Sometimes guilt leads to overindulgence. And this comes in the way of self-medicating or the form of self-punishment.


Caregivers also often make poor meal choices because of time constraints. 

They can't cook or prepare balanced meals three times a day while caring for their children and elderly parents. 

What are the signs that you’re experiencing an emotional eating disorder

Eating disorders are considered mental health issues that can change how individuals view themselves.

Disordered eating behaviors negatively affect a person's emotional, medical, and psychiatric well-being.

And the most common eating disorder is binge eating disorder.

To officially make an official diagnosis, individuals should meet specific criteria set out by the DSM-5.

Some signs to watch out for is if you overeat within any 2 hours. Or if you feel a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode.

Sometimes the signs are so subtle, we don’t even recognize that it’s already happening to us. 

We often think of overeating when talking about eating disorders. But it can also go the other way. 

help with emotional eating - anorexia

The most well-known is anorexia nervosa, where people view themselves as overweight, even if they’re underweight. 

Those suffering from this ‌are often obsessed with monitoring their weight and restrict the calories they consume. 

Then there’s bulimia nervosa, where people binge eat. Then they purge to compensate for calories and relieve gut discomfort. 

If left untreated, it can lead to obesity-related health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. 

Binge eating disorder patients are also more prone to suffering mental health conditions. This includes depression, self-harm, and substance abuse.

Emotional eating isn't an eating disorder itself. 

But it might be a symptom of an eating disorder that needs professional help.

How to find help with emotional eating the healthy way

Many people turn to food to deal with negative emotions, which are hard to deal with on their own. 

Fortunately, there are better ways for help with emotional eating.

Measuring behaviors

A food diary can help you track and understand your eating habits. 

Record your meals and snacks, then ask yourself a few simple questions about them. 

Did that extra chocolate help? If yes, how long? 

How did you feel before eating the ice cream? Did you spend the night hating yourself?

Reread your entries to spot emotional eating behaviors. 

Keeping track of triggers

Keeping track of what you eat and when may help you identify emotional eating triggers. 

You can use a journal or an app like MyFitnessPal to keep track.

Try to document everything you eat, big or small, and the emotions you're experiencing.

If you decide to contact a doctor about your eating habits, your food journal might be a valuable resource.

Choosing what to eat

It's also essential to ensure you're getting adequate nutrition to fuel your body. 

Consider getting rid of foods high in carbs and sugar that you often reach for when stressed. 

Instead, go for healthy snacks. 

Fresh fruits or vegetables, simple popcorn, and other high fiber, low-calorie items are a good choice.

Keep the foods you crave out of reach when you're feeling down.

And you may think about what you want to eat before you eat it.

Cope in healthy ways

Some caregivers find it best to seek social support. 

Others may see a therapist to help them sort out their feelings and unhealthy coping strategies.

Journaling has also shown several health advantages in reducing stress. So Instead of grabbing for junk food, reach for a pen.

Read more about journaling prompts here.

Last is to exercise. 

Moving your body is a much healthier way to relieve stress and release endorphins. Go for a walk in the sunshine.

Final thoughts 

Knowing you need help with emotional eating is the first step to fixing it. 

It’s not easy, but look at emotional eating as a challenge to overcome and connect you with your feelings.

Taking it day by day can help you better understand yourself and create healthier eating habits.

That's all for today.

Take care, keep mom safe and have a great day!


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