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An Effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tool to Help You Stop Emotional Eating

We are all familiar with the term “emotional eating” and it’s the number one reason why people eat when they are not hungry. I’m going to share an effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tool which will help you address the triggers that lead to emotional eating. 

It’s really important to be able to discern between emotional hunger and physical hunger, and to be able to address the cause of the emotional eating.  While the two sensations feel very similar, it is only as we become attuned to our body that we can differentiate between them.

The biggest problem with emotional eating is that it does not make you feel better, less stressed, whole, or happy. Unfortunately, it has the exact opposite effect, and actually makes you feel worse. After eating something due to an emotional trigger you end up feeling guilty and frustrated with yourself.

Two simple principles to help you distinguish between emotional hunger and actual hunger:

  1. Emotional hunger is a sudden and impulsive feeling.

Whereas actual hunger is gradual and doesn’t become urgent until you are starving. Typically when you are hit with an urgent pang for a particular food then some emotional trigger is involved.

  1. Emotional hunger cannot be satiated with food.

When you eat as a result of an emotional trigger, as opposed to a physical trigger, you will find that you can continue eating. You may be familiar indeed with bingeing, which is an extreme form of emotional eating. This is where you can eat the whole packet of biscuits and not feel satisfied. Food cannot fill the emotional deficit that you are experiencing. Physical hunger is easily satiated and once you eat something the feeling of hunger is replaced by a feeling of fullness.

Like anything, the more you practice tuning into your body the easier it will be to identify emotional hunger.

How to overcome emotional eating?

Two simple and extremely effective steps:

  1. Awareness
  2. Recognize and address emotional triggers

The most important thing when it comes to addressing emotional eating is awareness.

Put your attention right now into your body.

Put your attention right now in your stomach.

Are you hungry right now for food at this moment?

Every time you’re about to put food in your body, ask yourself, am I hungry right now?

How hungry am I?

What am I hungry for?

Use the huger scale to establish when to eat, this is a powerful tool which you can find out more about here. 

Emotional hunger is different.

Typically when you are hit with an urgent pang for a particular food then some emotional trigger is involved. If you trace back your thoughts to the moment before you felt the urge, you’ll discover that there was a dialogue taking place in your mind. So many people turn to food as a way of trying to cope with something else that they are struggling with.

Whenever you feel yourself getting stressed, anxious, sad, bored, upset, or are experiencing pangs of emotional hunger I have a very effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercise that I want you to use. It’s called an ABC sheet. My clients absolutely love this tool and find it extremely helpful in addressing emotional hunger, so please use it!

The key with this is that you must physically go through the exercise in written form. It will only take a couple of minutes and will help recognize and address the triggers that lead to emotional eating.  

Below there is an example of a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ‘ABC sheet’ to help you learn to address emotional eating. The first row provides the headings and the second row tells you what to do.  Try it out whenever you feel yourself experiencing the pangs of emotional hunger. Going through the process of actually writing the thoughts out is really cathartic and will help reduce and often eliminate the bad feelings. 


Artful Eating ABC SHEET

Whenever you notice yourself feeling at that point where you want to eat for emotional reasons, as opposed to feelings of actual hunger, do an ABC Sheet. Whether it be boredom, sadness, emptiness, stress, loneliness, anger…or whatever the feeling is!  To see a filled-in example, click here.

This very simple formula can help you overcome emotional eating:

  1. Differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger
  2. Use the ABC sheet whenever you feel the pangs of emotional hunger

By now I hope you are clear on how to differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger, and you have a powerful tool to use whenever you feel the pangs of emotional hunger.  

Over the next week I want you to really start to listen to your body and check in every little while and practice body awareness. If you recognize that you’re not actually hungry, don’t eat!

If you recognize that you are experiencing a craving due to emotional hunger, then I want you to pull out a piece of paper and go through the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ABC exercise. It’s really important that you physically write out the exercise as opposed to just thinking it. The idea here is that you are interrupting the feelings, acknowledging, and addressing them. This will help combat the need to fill the feeling with food and will help you overcome emotional eating for good!

If you would like more in-depth information on how to overcome emotional eating and banish cravings then check out my free training here.

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To learn more about Artful Eating, an approach where I will share with you the skills and tools to lose weight, enjoy food, and achieve your dream body without the pain and restriction of dieting, check out Artful Eating: The Psychology of Lasting Weight Loss. 


An Effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tool to Help You Stop Emotional Eating

Karina Melvin, MSc, MA

Karina Melvin provides online psychoanalysis and counselling services from her South Dublin office with her team of high-level psychoanalysts. You can learn more about online counselling, psychoanalysis by clicking the link below.

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APA Reference
Melvin, K. (2019). An Effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tool to Help You Stop Emotional Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Mar 2019
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