Emotional eating during lockdown

Emotional eating during lockdown


If you are struggling with emotional eating at the moment, please know that you are not alone.  It is extremely common.  Do yourself a favour and google “emotional eating during covid-19” and see how many results you get.  It is the reality of millions of people and if you have a house with a garden and access to healthy food, you are one of the lucky ones.  So many people feel stressed, anxious and even bored.  And at the same time, we don’t have access to our usual coping strategies, such as meeting up with friends, spending time in nature, going for a run or even something as simple as walking the dog.


Emotional eating is eating in response to an emotion.  It refers to any eating that occurs in response to negative emotion or mood.  Some people eat when they are sad, others when they are frustrated, nervous, on the edge, hopeless or worn out.  Some people eat when they are bored.  Emotional eating doesn’t satisfy hunger, in fact, it may occur in the complete absence of hunger.

You eat in response to an emotion and not because your body needs it. In contrast to physical hunger, emotional hunger tends to:

  • come on suddenly
  • involve strong cravings that are difficult to satisfy
  • involve searching for a specific type of craving (typically carbs or sweets)
  • persist despite a full stomach
  • make a person feel bad – guilty, or ashamed

Emotional eating does not discriminate, it affects men and women, children and all races and religions.


I want you to think back when you were a child.

Food were often used as a reward for good behaviour or as comfort for physical or emotional pain.  Unhealthy food were used as treats.  This still happens at schools every day. Food were also used as a symbol of love.

So, from a very young age, our bodies were taught to crave food (mostly unhealthy) when we were experiencing emotions. We are all experiencing so many emotions at the moment, so what do we turn do?  FOOD!


So, how serious is your emotional eating? To answer that questions let’s look at the 14 signs of emotional eating.    If the majority of these signs resonate with you, then it’s time to acknowledge that there is perhaps room for improvement.

  1. You eat when you are stressed. When you have things to do like work, studies or home schooling, you reach out for food subconsciously.
  2. You eat when you are bored. This is probably what most of you struggle with at the moment. How often do we lie on the coach, watching Netflix while munching away on your second bag or popcorn.
  3. You eat as a response to your emotions. You eat when you feel sad / annoyed / disappointed / angry / lonely / empty / anxious/ tired / bored. It’s a reaction so subconsciously embedded that you don’t even think about it. You just automatically reach out for food whenever you experience those emotions.
  4. You seek solace in food. When you feel down, you seek out “comfort food”. You bury yourself in food like ice cream, cake, chocolate and cookies, even though they are absolute junk and have zero nutritional value. For some reason you can’t quite explain, they provide you with comfort.
  5. You have trouble losing weight (due to the way you eat). Even though you want to lose weight and you know the technicalities behind losing weight such as the foods and quantities you should eat, you have trouble sticking to your diet. You can’t seem to stop yourself from eating as and when you want to.
  6. You tend to gain weight during stressful times. You get two types of people, those who lose weight during stressful times and those who gain weight. Which one are you?
  7. Your eating is out of control (You can’t stop yourself from eating). You eat even when you are not hungry, and you continue to eat even when you should have stopped long ago. Your desire to eat seems to have taken a life of its own. At times you would even go out of the way just to get food or to satisfy a particular craving, even though you may not be hungry at all.
  8. You eat to feel happy. You are emotionally dependent on food, relying on it for happiness. You derive positive emotions from eating, even though it’s nothing more than a neutral activity to help you live, just like breathing, drinking water, and passing waste.
  9. You eat when you feel happy. You see eating is a necessary companion to happy emotions, just like how people eat to celebrate good news.
  10. You are fascinated with eating / food. You love food. You love to eat. When you’re not eating, you can’t help but think about food. You long and crave for it. When you’re eating, it’s like you’re in wonderland. Eating and food draw an intense level of interest from you. Interestingly, none of your fascination is reciprocated by food nor eating.
  11. You use emotionally-charged words to describe food / eating, like “sinful”, “decadent”, “guilt-ridden”, “love”, “lust”, “indulgent”, “enticing”, “craving”, “tempting”, etc, even though food is a non-living thing, incapable of feelings nor returning your love/hate.
  12. You eat even though you are rightfully full. No matter how much you eat, no matter how full you feel, you never feel quite satisfied. Whatever satisfaction you get from eating is momentary, and you return to eating after a while to recapture that emotion.
  13. You think of eating even though you are rightfully full. Even after you’ve had your fill, you continue to think of food. You think about what to eat for the next meal right after you’ve finished eating. You obsess about X, Y, Z food, and when you can eat it. You can’t wait till it’s time to eat again. You think about how satisfied you’ll be when you finally get to eat. You count down to the next meal time.
  14. You have random food cravings out of the blue. Sometimes, you get urges to eat certain food, which you can’t explain yourself. And it’s not even that you’re hungry. It’s just a craving which you must satisfy, else you’ll feel unhappy for the day.


So, why do we turn to food when the world has turned upside down:

  • Remember, from a young age, we were taught to eat when we’re experiencing emotions. But it is more than that.
  • The body tends to crave high-calorie and high-sugar foods during stressful times, as these foods provide short-term bursts of energy.
  • Stress leads to elevated cortisol levels, which can increase your appetite.
  • And sugary foods generate dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward.
  • Eating can activate the pleasure centre of your brain.
  • Eating can psychologically remove you from the negative emotion that you’re feeling at the time.
  • But it’s not all good vibes, so many times emotional eating is followed by guilt, shame and disappointment.  Resulting in elevated cortisol levels, which increase your appetite more.

Overcoming emotional eating won’t happen overnight, but if you are willing to work on it, you might just be surprised with the results.


So, here are some strategies you can experiment with.


Before you eat ask yourself, am I hungry now?

  1. Yes, then eat.
  2. No, then ask yourself, why do I want to eat now?
  3. For a few seconds just be still and consider what is going on. Are you bored, anxious, tired, frustrated?
  4. Do not eat until, you’ve identified the trigger.
  5. Now, get out your note book, and write down the day, time and the trigger.
  6. Then wait 5 minutes.
  7. During the waiting time, do something that makes you happy. Page through your favourite magazine, listen to music, walk in the garden, tickle your child, cuddle with your partner.
  8. If you still want to eat after 5 minutes, then make a conscious decision to eat, and have something to eat.
  9. Because you’re now made a conscious decision to eat, you can now eat without feeling guilty or disappointed.


  1. Start each day by acknowledging that you probably will want to eat when you’re not hungry.
  2. Tell yourself to watch out and be aware of it happening.
  3. When it happens, acknowledge the need to eat and challenge the need (by asking why, giving it time, find something else to do).
  4. Very important – do this while being kind and non-judgemental to yourself.
  5. Practice mindful eating
  • When you eat, remove distractions (tv/cellphone etc)
  • eat slowly
  • enjoy your food
  • try to identify the different textures and tastes
  • food should be enough and filling


For one day eat only when you’re hungry.  Wake up, have your tea or coffee but don’t immediately reach for breakfast. Wait until your body tells you it’s hungry.  Then have a filling and satisfying healthy meal.  For the rest of the day, continue to only eat when you’re hungry.  Don’t worry about skipping meals.  Your body will tell you when it needs food.


Find alternatives to emotional eating through the 5 X 5 method

  • five people you can call when you feel down (e.g. a friend)
  • five ways you can relax (e.g. take a bath)
  • five places you can go to calm down (e.g. to a cosy corner)
  • five things you can say to yourself (e.g. “this feeling will pass”)
  • five activities you can use for distraction (e.g. start a puzzle)


Try to stick to a daily routine. Maintain regular eating patterns and eat enough at meal time.


Listen to your body, be kind to yourself, slow down, rest and do what you love.

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