Emotional eating typically is linked to stress, depression, anxiety, or frustration.Here are tips to help understand what might be causing the problem and how to avoid overeating, especially with fatty, salty, nutrient-poor foods.

Most American adults have a relationship or have had experiences with emotional eating. There really isn't a single definition of emotional eating exists, emotional eating is explained as eating in response to feelings rather than hunger. Emotional eating typically is linked to stress, depression, anxiety, or frustration. The major issue with emotional eating is that people tend to overeat, consume too many calories, and choose foods that are nutrient poor. It seems that part of emotional eating incorporates salty, fatty, and sweet foods, which of course can lead to becoming overweight.

There are certain foods that may provide emotional comfort for people. Women typically lean toward chocolate and ice cream and men to pizza and potato chips. The pleasure of eating replaces some of the generally negative feelings. Because most people have relationships with foods that bring them pleasure, they will seek out these foods in an emotional moment. This often evolves into a habit leading to a hard to break vicious cycle.

For some people food is a great distraction from worries, stress, or negative feelings. While eating, individuals do not thinking of the things that cause them to overeat. However, this distraction is temporary, and often people wind up in the same state that brought them to use food for coping, with the added guilt of overeating and worries about weight management and health.

Things that may trigger emotional eating can be classified under the following categories:

Social - Eating when around other people;

Emotional - Eating because of boredom, depression, anxiety, fear, nervousness;

Situational - Eating because an opportunity is present (restaurant, sporting event, etc.);

Thoughts - Eating because of negative self-worth;

Physiological - Eating in response to physical cues (headache due to hunger; stomach growling).

Tips for preventing problems

How can you deal with emotional eating?

1. Plan activities that do not revolve around food.

2. Make healthy snacks available (fruit, vegetables, popcorn, low-fat versions of your favorite foods).

3. Keep a food diary to track your eating habits.

4. When you decide to eat, determine whether you are eating because of hunger or emotion.

5. Keep yourself busy to avoid eating out of boredom.

6. Gain control of your eating habits and get a grasp on your emotional eating. Once you are able to determine what triggers the habit, you will be able to put measures in place to help control it.

7. If you find yourself craving certain foods, try modifying the portion size or preparation method to avoid excessive calories.

8. Remember to stay active. The periods of inactivity will often lead to consumption of unnecessary food.

Where to get help

If you are having issues dealing with emotional eating on your own, try reaching out to professionals. Counselors and therapists can help you deal with your feelings. Nutritionists can help you identify your eating patterns and get you on track with a better diet. Fitness experts can get your body's feel-good chemicals firing through exercise instead of food.

LaDale Walker, RD, LDN, of Middletown Family Wellness and Counseling, is a registered dietician and licensed nutritionist. She can be reached at (302) 449-4166 or lrwalker@middletownwellness.com.