9 Lesser-Known Emotional Eating Triggers (Part 1)

When you think of emotional eating, you might picture a lot of tears + ice cream after a break-up but emotional eating isn’t always so obvious or dramatic! The subtle triggers of emotional eating can be much harder to notice and improve! 

Awareness precedes all change so before you can improve your relationship with food, learning more about your triggers is key to creating new habits! Here are 4 out of the 9 subtle triggers for emotional eating that you may be missing! 


Feeling unwell is a big trigger for many of my clients! This includes chronic pain, a recent injury, unmanaged heartburn, migraines, hangovers, or feeling run down. If you crave your mother’s or grandmother’s cooking when you are feeling sick or run down, this might be a sign! That little hit of dopamine we get from eating can help us feel better as dopamine is not only involved in our pleasure/reward pathway, but it can also reduce the sensation of pain. Unfortunately, these “feel good” effects are short-lived and we are right back to where we started. 

For many of my clients dealing with chronic pain, we can improve flare-ups by minimizing inflammation from diet but it is also a great idea to get help from other services such as a chronic pain clinic or psychologists who specialize in somatic therapy to help you cope in a more helpful way.


I don’t know if I will ever stop talking about this but it’s for good reason! While this isn’t true emotional eating, hunger is often confused with emotional eating so it is good to be aware of your triggers so you can make more effective changes. I have named this food personality type “Chaotic Eaters”.


Not eating enough can come in a few forms:

  • forgetting to eat
  • struggling to make time for themselves during the day
  • skipping meals 
  • following intermittent fasting diets
  • restricting the volume, carbs, and/or calories at breakfast or lunch
  • restricting the volume, carbs, and/or calories during the week 

Regardless of why someone isn’t eating enough, many of my clients struggle with the compensatory hunger that comes along later in the day, evening, or during the weekend. 

In order to help my Chaotic Eaters avoid the compensatory eating cycle, I help them nourish themselves in a more balanced way during the day or week to prevent the feelings of being out of control around food (and setting them up for the diet-binge cycle).  I have great tips in other blog posts on how to break the compensatory eating cycle:

Are you an emotional or chaotic eater? Take my quiz to find out your Food Personality Type!


Food is associated with celebration, love, recognition, and reward. It is so ingrained in our cultures, holidays, families, schools, and even workplaces that eating as a reward can be easily missed as a trigger. Eating can stimulate the release of a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is involved in our pleasure/reward pathway. Eating can make us physically feel well but there is also an emotional attachment because of how we were raised such as getting ice cream for good grades which combines food + praise/recognition + our families showing us love. That is a powerful cocktail for making us feel loved, appreciated or seen!  
For many of my clients, we strive to improve their awareness of why they turn to food as a reward (you might notice a pattern here with awareness always coming first in the nutrition treatment plan) and modify how they reward themselves. To start building your awareness, here are some examples of some “red flags” to listen for:

  • “I “need” this
    • It’s a slight tone difference that you need to pay attention to as it is different from “I need to go to the bathroom” or “I need to drink some water”.
  • I “deserve” this
    • It’s also a slight tone difference that you need to pay attention to as it is different from “I deserve to rest” or “I deserve to be treated with respect”.
  • Using the words treat or reward to justify to yourself why you are eating foods
    • “I’ve been good”


This one is also very subtle and can be hard to recognize in the moment. Eating as “something to do” or to delay starting the next task is fairly common! You might have developed this habit as a kid if you ate to delay starting homework & chores or if you were not allowed to rest. 

I often see this with adults who are fairly busy, rarely have time for themselves, and have a hard time relaxing. If you have an unhelpful belief that you are “not allowed” to rest or take breaks and your identity or self-worth is directly tied to your output or achievements, you may find yourself justifying with food why you are are taking a break!

In order to combat this, I help women reconsider areas they could get more downtime and/or recommend help from a psychologist. If you want to start reducing your procrastination snacking, some helpful affirmations that my clients love are:

  • I am worthy regardless of my productivity.
  • My value does not depend on what I achieve.
  • I do not have to “earn” rest & relaxation.

There you have it! That is 4 out of 9 subtle emotional eating triggers and part 2 will cover the remaining 5! If you want to get more clarity on your next steps, book a free consult call with a Dietitian!

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