Home Clean Eating Boot Camp The Difference Between Enjoying Eating and Emotional Eating

The Difference Between Enjoying Eating and Emotional Eating

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Just as a quick recap, if you’re following the Clean Eating Boot Camp, you should be abstaining from fast food restaurants and cooking dinner at home every night thus far. It might be a struggle, but feel free to use the recipes on this site to help you plan a little. In preparation for the upcoming week, be sure to save a little money because we’re going to begin stocking the kitchen next week.

My daughter and I love to eat together. She’s not even able to tell time just yet, but she always knows when it’s time to eat – the same time every day.

For us, eating is a big thing. We set the table, she helps me pick out the veggies, she sits down, I serve us both, and we eat together. I always finish before she does, so I stay at the table with her until the end. If she finishes before me, I make us a little dessert to enjoy together. She cleans off the table (by, unfortunately, dropping my darn dishes in the sink), and we go off to do whatever we were doing before we sat down together. I enjoy these times together because the memories are powerful.

I remember when she was too small to sit at the table, and I sat her in a high chair next to me at the table. I remember sitting her on my lap and feeding her from my plate. I remember when she’d sit at the table in anticipation, and her little forehead was the only thing peeking out above the table. She had to raise her eyebrows and strain her neck pretty high up to even see above the table.

I remember teaching her how to use a fork. I remember when she couldn’t fit her mouth around the spoon. I even remember when every time she picked up a glass to drink, she’d drop it – she hadn’t realized she’d need both hands to hold a glass, and I hadn’t yet realized to only give her an ounce at a time… to help minimize the amount of mess she’d make. We both learned alot from one another at the dinner table. I remember the days when she couldn’t converse during dinner (secretly, I sometimes miss those… ’cause now, I can’t get her to hush.)

For me, a lot of my favorite memories of my little one come from our moments together dining. That’s where many of our memories are made each day. I look forward to sitting with her and watching her dive, nose first, into an ear of corn… because she does it just like her Mommy. I get pleasure and satisfaction from these moments with her. No interruptions via phone, no company, no TV… just us two. I leave the table feeling satiated through the food, and fulfilled through the company of my family.

I can’t say “Oh, good grief, I’m so stressed out… let me hurry up and make dinner so I can feel better” because this isn’t an experience that you speed through just to get the “satisfaction” at the end. The satisfaction isn’t at the end – it’s throughout the meal… and rushing through it causes you to miss it. There is no bingeing on this experience. You have to take your time to truly experience the benefit.

Compare this to emotional eating – a mindless experience that reverts us back to our most prehistoric desires. As I wrote before:

Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.

See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.

One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.

Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.

Compare this to emotional eating. The body’s reaction doesn’t change no matter what variables you swap out. Regardless if the stress comes from traffic, bad work day, or family problems… the body’s reaction to stress has not evolved as fast as society has. Now, we can get food within ten minutes if we drive or own a microwave. So presuming our body believes that stress is caused by a “famine on the way,” then it’s going to trigger feelings to make you go hunt! Our bodies just don’t know how easy it is to get food in the 21st century. It hasn’t caught up.

This is why emotional eating “works.” Emotional eating is not enjoying food, it is enjoying the feeling derived from food. The fats, salts and sugars that are so prominent in the processed foods we buy regularly are, essentially, a method of self-medication. No, really: if fat and salt from the animal curbed the hunger – thereby curbing the stress – and sugar only temporarily curbed the hunger (because man needed fat and salt)… then the way we use those three in food today to “cure” stress is a form of using a legal substance for the unintended purpose of making us feel better emotionally.

Enjoying eating is about the experience you derive from the meal. It includes your company – even if you are by yourself, you are in excellent company – and your conversation. Eating emotionally is about hiding from a very prominent problem in your food. Something – whatever it is – that causes you stress or trauma all day… causes you to go hide in an entire pint of ice cream (which, if I’m not mistaken, is usually four servings.) Add to that the fact that you very well might scarf the entire thing down? That’s 800 calories. If you’re calorie counting, that can be anywhere from a half to a third of your day’s intake just off of emotional eating alone.

Emotional eating is a problem.. because it causes a cycle of self-hate. If we DO scarf down the entire pint, then we hate ourselves for not having any self-control, thereby not only adding more pressure to ourselves… but demeaning our own self-worth because it’s one more thing we don’t have and can’t do. In reality, emotional eating doesn’t even foster a healthy enjoyment of food – not only do you “hate yourself” after a binge session, but you start to hate that which “did this to you”… the food.

Learning how to enjoy a dining experience overpowers what emotional eating can do for you. It gives you a lifetime of good feelings to look back on and smile. Emotional eating gives you maybe 20 minutes to willfully avoid addressing a problem, only to revert back to anger or sadness once the “high” comes down. Recognize which one you truly want and need, and start moving in the direction to obtain it.

Are you an emotional eater? Do you know which situations trigger bouts of binging for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

PS: Show a little love by voting for me in the Black Weblog Awards for Best Health or Wellness Blog category! That’s right – BGG2WL is a finalist thanks to you! Let’s do what we can to bring it home!

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Ladi Ohm August 17, 2010 - 10:27 AM

I am an emotional eater. I eat pretty clean about 90%, and most things that stress me can be managed through working out and meditating. However, once I start worrying about my financial situation, I can’t turn my mind off. I start wondering how stuff will get paid, where’s the money coming from, why in the heck did I go to grad school if the degree would be worthless in a recession and then… BAM!!!! I NEED a bacon cheeseburger with extra cheddar. Then, I feel horrible for eating it, and even worse for skipping my evening workout (it always happens after a burger) and super sluggish during my morning run… it usually takes me a day and a half to recoup after it, and yet, at the time, I really feel like I NEED that burger…

Adrienne August 17, 2010 - 11:39 AM

I am hardly ever an emotional eater (I’m am more of an emotional shopper), but I actually hate eating–l am so much prouder of myself when I can look back on my day and say ‘I didn’t eat a thing.’ When I succumb to my appetite (as I proofread, I realize that even that verb choice ‘succumb’ is about losing a battle), from the first to last bite, I eat with a sense of failure–almost thinking ‘I can’t believe I have done this to myself again’

And for me, that’s where the food cycle starts. Because I have eaten something and ‘failed’ myself. But I say to myself ‘I can’t help it–I’m truly hungry.’ This of course makes me sad because I feel like ‘this is a losing battle.’ And, in sadness, I eat again (…or shop again–depends what the bank account is looking like that day, lol).

I know this is is ridiculous–there is NO reason to feel this way about food. But for most of my life, I have been of the mind that food–even the good, healthy kind–is the ultimate enemy.

Lisa August 18, 2010 - 2:17 AM

Hi Erika,

I just love your site!!! I have no problem with working out (once I get going lol), and eating healthy. The problem I have always struggled with is emotional eating. Because of sexual trauma I encountered as a child, I tend to binge under stress or emotional pain.

I am currently seeking counseling for this issue, but I wanted to know if you had any practical advice for me. I am afraid of feeling the negative emotions…anger, sadness, fear, etc. When I do, I feel vulnerable. Do you have any tips of how I can go about not running to food for “safety”?



Erika August 18, 2010 - 11:03 AM

I have a special post coming up just for you. 🙂

Lisa August 19, 2010 - 2:55 AM

Thank you, Erika!!!!
It’s sites like yours that help me to take my road to good health one day at a time!!! Can’t wait to see the new post. Everything you write is full of practical hands on wisdom for people who want to put action with the information we hear about health.

Thanks again,
Lisa 🙂

Fa August 19, 2010 - 10:13 AM

I am an emotional eater, and what you wrote about it leading to self-hate really touched me. I eat out of control every so often and during and afterwards I hate myself for it. I just don’t know how to not get to that point! I eat well for the most part, but once I see something sugary I have to have it all. Not having sugar in my home has helped, but it doesn’t solve the deeper issues I clearly have…I’m glad I came across this site, maybe it will help with my own progress.

China Blue August 20, 2010 - 8:47 AM

This: “Emotional eating is not enjoying food, it is enjoying the feeling derived from food. The fats, salts and sugars that are so prominent in the processed foods we buy regularly are, essentially, a method of self-medication”

…rings so true. I’m currently reading a book called ‘Eating Less’ by Gillian Riley, and she explains the biochemical effects that the unholy trinity – fat, sugar and salt – have on the reward centres in your brain. In short: not that different from heroin! No wonder we go into a trance when eating – we’re high!

To break free from this, you have to learn to manage your emotions without eating; when you do that you can smash the ‘self-hate because you eat too much/eat too much because you hate yourself’ vicious cycle. And you’ll actually have resolved what’s eating you, rather than eating IT.

When it comes to emotional eating, I find anger and work-stress put me on a mission to munch. Romantic stress does quite the opposite – I dropped a dress size in 2 weeks over an ex!

I’d strongly recommend reading up on NLP techniques (neuro-linguistic programming, like Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Thin – for me, that’s done so much in breaking down and rebuilding my attitudes to food and myself, and every addictive/emotional eater can benefit.

It’s not easy, but if you do nothing else, know this: if you’re aware that you’re eating emotionally, you don’t need to be a slave to it.

Erika August 20, 2010 - 8:55 AM

I love everything about your comment. Truly, I do. Thank you SO much for sharing. 🙂

China Blue August 20, 2010 - 11:26 AM

Thanks Erika! I’ve been dieting/overeating since I was 10. Literally. At my biggest – aged 13 – I was a UK 16/US 12, which was too heavy for me, and I’m now a US 8/10.

In my teens I used to cook for the family and eat dinner out of what I was cooking, and still eat a full meal at dinnertime! I binged to the point of physical pain and ‘food hangover’. Eating made me feel awful, but the only way to deaden the pain was to eat some more.

Getting a handle on cracking my overeating and facing up to food addiction has been – still is – a real struggle, especially with 20-odd years of conditioning to unravel. I’m not there yet, but the impact on my mental and physical health and self-esteem, never mind my dress size, makes the pain worth it.

Tiffany December 14, 2010 - 5:34 PM


Keelah May 27, 2011 - 4:42 PM

Yes. I do. Since I’ve been calorie counting, its much harder for me to gorge, but I did recognize that I do in fact have a trigger. Fried Chicken…Lawd! I tasted a small piece and then I felt the DESIRE to demolish all that I could. I had flashbacks of times when I’d ate WAAAAY too much, all in the split second that the chicken touched my mouth. So now I know…salt, fried-stay away from it. Until of course, I can go deeper and find out what the connection is, and heal it. Thanks for the site! And congrats on continued success!

LaDonna July 12, 2011 - 6:39 AM

This article is such a nail on the head. The info was so helpful. I discovered I was an emotional eater in college. A bill collect called me and starting threatening to sure me of I didn’t seattle a bill. All of a sudden threat all too familiar sinking feeling of panic hit me. I started speed eating hershey chocolates. When I realized what I was doing I stopped quickly. But I didn’t over come it. This article and the comments are very helpful and food for thought.

Ashley April 20, 2012 - 3:37 PM

I am an emotional eater to the fullest extent. At the slightest provocation, I eat, and never the good stuff. I personally don’t drink pop/juice on a regular basis, however as soon as a deadline looms with me being nowhere near prepared, or someone makes me angry, or I get in one of my “moods”, BOOM, only something deep fried and/or smothered in chocolate is going to help me. I’ve tried thinking “hmmm don’t eat, go get crazy on the elliptical!” and the stress of eating instead of the gym makes it worse. I’ve almost been near to tears because I polished off a pint of B&J’s cherry garcia froyo and realized how long I’d have to workout to burn it off. It kind of became a cycle for me and drives me crazy, but I found putting notes on the fridge helps. They ask are you hungry or upset? or are you hungry or bored? And they help me to stop, think, and grab my weights instead. If you have any tips to take this even farther and help (because I backslide more often than I’m proud of) it, like the rest of your blog, would be greatly appreciated!

Sistagrl April 27, 2012 - 2:04 AM

This article was such a mirrored description of my life right now. There are some nights that I just binge to the point of no return. From bowls of cereal (which are my weakness) to sweets, leftovers, just anything I can eat in access. I think what is most repulsive is how fast I consume the food when I am eating emotionally. I sometimes feel like I am having a out of body experience. There is this voice saying “now look at you, do you really need to eat like that?, you are going to be so mad at yourself when you get done”. Then there is the one saying “this is so good I am going to have more”. Anyway, I hope I don;t sound insane but this is what is going on. The vicious cycle that was mentioned in other comments. I can not wait to eat it then I hate myself for doing it so I eat more. Weight has always been a struggle, but not working, broken engagement, teenage son blues…lol I can just come up with a ton of reasons to overindulge after midnight. You ladies are inspiring me. I am trying to take back the control and deal with all my emotions and stress right now. I am considering some counseling just to deal with processing everything and not getting overwhelmed. I am a single mom, but there are many women out there just like me taking it one day at a time. I am happy I found this page. Thanks Erica.

Cherry August 14, 2012 - 12:39 AM

I am a emotional eater at my job stress so I eat at home thinking to much so I eat trying to do better once I get pass its more to life then junk and stress I am doing better day by day thanks to u clean boot camp

Nicie williams February 2, 2013 - 8:43 AM

Im an emotional eater.. Hello everyone my name is Nicie and im an emotional eater…lol. Well its been a long while since I was highly emotional and ate. I thought I was over it until last week. i used to eat that pint of ice cream ( im lactose) 2-3 sandwiches a day ( bread my weakness that i know adds pounds on me quickly) candy bars, pastries and this can be two or three of the above in one day! But im thankful thru research and a journey of finding my new self and regained focus i have overcome emotional eating 95%. Last week i ate a large cup of hot chocolate, donut, chicken sandwich all from dunkin donuts, and a snickers bar.. in one sitting. that was my emotional eating. did I feel bad afterwards yes because now i wanted to fast the next day and drink down a half a gallon of water to dilute all the calories ive consumed, lol. But we all live and learn and learning is a process. What i ve been doing to help my emotion cravings…WORKOUT! i hit it hard, mentally sometimes i use it as a punishment. The next day when im sore i tell myself ” Now thats what you get, get it together and move on” and it works for me on the inside and out!!

Robin May 28, 2013 - 1:22 PM

Hi Erika…Are emotional eating and BORED eating related? Because where I can identify and control my need to eat in stressful/emotional situations. I do not seem to be able to get a handle on my bored eating, it seems almost mindless! When I am at work with not a lot to do, I will parade back and forth to the candy bowl at the reception desk. When I look in my wastebasket later in the day, I’m seriously like…”Did I do that?!? That’s what I mean by it’s mindless. If I bring treats (usually sweets) into my home (which is rare), more bored eating and the crazy part about it is…I cannot not rest until it is all gone!!

Erika Nicole Kendall May 28, 2013 - 10:09 PM

I think bored eating is a completely different phenomenon, but there are a couple of books that I’d read, if I were you, to help you get a better idea of what might be contributing to it. (And, just so you know, both links benefit me if you make your purchase from them.)

Next time you’re bored, instead of eating, pick up one of these and get to reading. Might give you a little insight on your eating habits.

Court July 20, 2013 - 12:02 AM

Thank you for your posts. I love them. I studied exercise science and health in college, all of these issues still affect on me. I’m not even kidding. I love the salt (pure enjoyment) and chocolate (stress food). I will eat almost anything that is chocolate when I am stressed.
My stress is a little different than most listed. I am a stay at home mom. I never really had this pictured as something I’d want to do, somedays I love it. Other days I wish I could go back to working and do it full time. When I start to feel that urge to eat or find chocolate I try to ask myself “is this really it?” Is the food really what I’m going after or is it because there something else? My kids always trigger it.
Exercise really helps and so does meditation. The unusual one that helps is pictures, taking pictures of my food throughout the day. It helps me to me mindful of what I am sticking in my mouth. I use it like a food diary.

Elizabeth March 27, 2014 - 6:50 PM

I’m 30 yrs old, fairly active, a US size 10 at 169lbs (my weight has been steady for years) and eat fairly healthy (I cook all my meals, I eat mostly organic and paleo, almost 0 packaged foods, 0 sodas etc.). I dance, do yoga, use a bike to commute at least 6 months a year (due to weather limitations) and recently (6 months ago) got into aerial acrobatics. I’ve never been lightweight, my lowest ever weight was 143lbs in high school when I was definitely an emotional eater, my highest weight was 184lbs when I was struggling with depression and not being active, in college. I have been happy with my current weight for a long time, no self hating etc, but due to aerial acrobatics I’ve been trying to lose some weight. It has proven very hard for me, not because of emotionally eating crap food, but because I can’t really clean up my eating any more, I have to reduce the quantity. I am wandering if needing to eat large-ish portions of healthy foods is an emotional eating type thing – it does happen more on my period, or just a habit? It’s becoming frustrating because I know my muscles would be happier lifting a bit less weight when I do aerial stuff, my forearms would thank me, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being on a diet/eating much less than I want to – I had gotten rid of that feeling by becoming active, eating clean and losing 15lbs years ago…

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