Can’t Stop Eating? Here’s 5 Reasons Why.


Do you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry? Do you know what you should eat, but then find yourself eating foods that leave you feeling sick, ashamed, or numb? If you answered “yes” to these questions then you may be an emotional eater.

Emotional eating is just that — eating for emotional reasons, rather than physical hunger. Emotional “hunger” often comes on suddenly in the form of a specific craving, compelling you to get that food as soon as possible. Emotional eaters tend to eat past the point of fullness, hoping for some emotional relief from the food. Unfortunately, after eating the comfort food(s), feelings of guilt and shame may develop.

Five common reasons we eat when we’re not hungry include:

  1. Entertainment: So often clients tell me that they eat when they’re bored. If they’re alone and find themselves with nothing to do, they turn to the pantry or refrigerator for a solution. It’s as if eating becomes their hobby.
    • Solution: Find other activities that can alleviate your boredom, such as hobbies or items on your to-do list. If you don’t have any hobbies or interests, then read an earlier blog I wrote about how to discover some. Exploring your passions and interests makes for an interesting, fulfilling life!
  1. Relaxation: For many, the act of eating is soothing, especially when it’s paired with another mind-numbing activity, like watching TV. From a psychological standpoint, eating gives our minds something else to focus on other than the worries and stressors of day-to-day life. From a physiological standpoint, the foods we typically eat when we’re wanting to relax – highly palatable foods with sugar, fat, and/or salt – trigger the release of dopamine in our brains, which helps us feel good and relaxed. It’s no wonder we eat to relax!
    • Solution: Challenge yourself to relax without food – take a warm shower, listen to a guided imagery podcast on your phone, take a short walk around the neighborhood, sit outside and watch the sunset, play with your pet, take a nap, call a friend, do something artistic or crafty, etc. If you find it hard to give yourself permission to relax, read this earlier blog I wrote about “Self-Care vs. Selfish.”
  1. Comfort: Using food to quell distressing emotions, like anxiety, hurt, and fear (just to name a few), is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm. It doesn’t do anything to help you heal the emotional wound. Often it just makes things worse because now you’re left with the original, uncomfortable emotion plus the shame of having (mis)used food. Life will inevitably deliver its fair share of distressing emotions – learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable is imperative to your healing of emotional eating!
    • Solution:  Increase your emotional intelligence, or EQ, by learning about your emotions and discovering other ways to get your emotional needs met. For example, identify what your experience of sadness is like and then come up with other ways to address your sadness – cry, talk to someone about your sadness, journal, exercise, etc. Working with a therapist skilled in eating disorders is often useful for strengthening this skill.
  1. Anxiety: The act of eating provides a nice distraction from feeling worried or nervous, and physiologically calms your body down, much like psychotropic drugs do. Unfortunately, the food doesn’t solve any of your worries and so once the dopamine high wears off, you’re left with the anxiety once again. Racing thoughts, worrying about “what if” scenarios, and avoiding stressful triggers are common symptoms of anxiety.
    • Solution: Strengthening your ability to calm your mind and body without food is key to breaking the anxious emotional eating cycle. You can train your brain to calm down using many behavioral interventions, including but not limited to: listening to guided imagery at least once a day, practicing diaphragmatic breathing, getting plenty of sleep, identifying and reducing your daily stressors, talking with emotionally safe people about the things that worry you, exercising, and appropriately nourishing your brain with high-quality food. If you suffer from debilitating anxiety, work with a therapist and/or psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety to help you reclaim a satisfying life.
  1. Socializing: Food is a very integral part of our social relationships. We “meet for lunch,” plan a “special dinner” to celebrate, and bring meals when someone is ill or grieving. Food is a universal language for love, showing people we care about them with home-baked goodies and favorite meals.
    • Solution:  Challenge yourself to focus more on the relationship and less on the food. Go for a walk rather than meet for lunch. Plan a fun activity rather than an expensive meal to celebrate your anniversary. Show your love by offering your time and energy, rather than food. When others offer you food as their symbol of love, graciously accept their gift but also give yourself permission to not eat it if you really don’t want it.

Why do YOU eat when you’re not hungry? If you’re not sure, keep a log for one week in which you list the emotions you’re feeling right before you begin overeating. After several entries, notice if there are any patterns in the types of emotions that trigger you, the time of day when you’re more likely to overeat, or the situations or environments in which you’re more likely to overeat.

Research consistently shows us that addressing the emotional aspects of your relationship with food is crucial to freeing yourself from the vicious trap of knowing what you should do but then not being able to do it. Once you understand why you eat, you can begin to heal these emotional wounds and start doing what is good for both your body and mind.

For many, this journey of healing cannot be done alone. This is not a sign of weakness; this just means you’re human! Seek out a mental health professional who is an emotional eating expert and who can be a source of support and emotional safety as you navigate this recovery process.

If you are affected by emotional eating and you live in the greater Phoenix area, check out TheHealthyWeighOut. This is a unique, groundbreaking program designed specifically for people who are ready to ditch the diets, gain control over their relationship with food, and reclaim their emotional and physical health!

Dr. Ashley Southard is a Clinical Therapist at A New Beginning and the Co-Creator of TheHealthyWeighOut, both in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Dr. Ashley Southard

Scottsdale, AZ, USA

Dr. Ashley Southard is a Complex Trauma Therapist and Eating Disorder Expert. Check her out on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook for heartfelt inspiration and life-changing education.