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January 30, 2023

Tips for Curbing Emotional Eating

ThedaCare Dietitian Offers Ideas for Redirecting Eating Habits

Do you experience food cravings? Do they come on suddenly or are they singularly focused on one type of food, such as carbohydrates or sugar? If so, you may be experiencing emotional or “head” hunger.

“There are different kinds of hunger,” explained Lori Knapp, a registered dietitian at ThedaCare Medical Center-New London. “There’s physical hunger when our body signals the need for fuel and nutrients, and then there’s head or stress hunger when we think we’re hungry because we’re emotional about something.”

Knapp said it’s important to pay attention to both types of hunger.

“When our bodies tell us we’re hungry, it’s important to listen to that stomach growl and make sure we’re providing healthy fuel to our body,” she said. “A healthy lifestyle means we’re aware of what foods our body needs and we practice mindful eating. That is, we think about what our bodies need as we prepare menus, shop for our food, prepare it and eat it.”

Head hunger is also a real feeling, Knapp said, but if we stop and evaluate what’s going on, we may recognize it as an emotional reaction.

“Normal hunger comes on gradually whereas head hunger starts suddenly, or at a specific time such as every evening, and typically focuses on a sharp craving for a particular type of food,” she explained. “That’s the kind of hunger that causes us to eat a bag of chips or a carton of ice cream without thinking, which we often later regret.”

Knapp suggests asking ourselves these questions before we eat:

  • Am I truly hungry?
  • When did I last eat?
  • Am I thirsty?
  • Am I angry, tired or upset?
  • Am I bored?

“The answers to these questions will help you determine if you’re experiencing physical hunger or head hunger and help you figure out whether you really need to eat,” she said. “Sometimes we’re just thirsty, and it manifests as hunger. Drinking a glass of water might help the urge to eat pass and save you from taking in unnecessary calories.”

Health experts provide these tips to curb emotional eating:

  • Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Your eating patterns may reveal the connection between mood and food.
  • Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try practicing a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
  • Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry. Give the craving time to pass.
  • Get support. You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group to address life problems.
  • Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, work on a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, play with your pet or call a friend.
  • Take away temptation. Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. Don’t grocery shop when you’re angry or upset.
  • Don’t deprive yourself. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, enjoy an occasional treat and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
  • Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a healthy snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, nuts or unbuttered popcorn.
  • Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Plan for how you can prevent it in the future.

Knapp said keeping a food diary is a great way to identify unhealthy eating habits.

“You don’t have to keep a diary for an extended period of time,” she said. “If we are honest about writing down everything we eat or drink, a week is usually long enough for us to recognize habits that are sabotaging our goal of eating healthily.”

She concluded by encouraging everyone to strive to live an overall healthy lifestyle.

“Living a healthy lifestyle means we’re aware of the food and nutrients our bodies need to be healthy, that we try to manage our eating habits and that we are mindful about when and what we eat,” she said. “If we follow those guidelines, we’ll be on the way to establishing good eating habits.”

About ThedaCare

For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.

For more information, visit or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.