Whether you’re craving a chocolate bar while checking out at the supermarket, eating straight from the Nutella jar in front of the TV, or devouring a box of pizza after a particularly stressful day, we’ve all been there – we’ve all eaten for emotional reasons. Emotional eating is eating to feed your emotions, rather than eating due to actual hunger. Done every once in a while it’s harmless. Research even suggests that emotional eating has a therapeutic value. But it’s essential that we understand why it happens and how to control it.

The main problem with emotional eating is that most of us aren’t able to recognize and control our emotional eating habits. We are brought up to subconsciously perceive food as a reward – as a source of happiness. Sweet, sugary food is always associated with birthdays, family gatherings, and merry occasions in general. We’ve been programmed to believe that these comfort foods are in a way related to happy feelings. Put simply, we turn to food for comfort, regardless of which emotions we are experiencing: stress, depression, boredom, or even excitement.

Most people believe that the worst result of emotional eating is a few extra inches around the waistline, but although it may seem harmless, emotional eating can affect us negatively in the long term. Research shows that emotional eating is one of the most common reasons for people to stop following a specific diet. It is also a common factor in increased obesity, which can result in even more harmful health problems. If we are unable to control our emotional eating habits they may also lead to other eating disorders like binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or anorexia nervosa.

The first step to control our emotional eating is by simply increasing our awareness of it. If we do this we can become more conscious of our eating triggers and habits. We need to identify the emotions we go through that make us eat the most, and ensure that we do not resort to unhealthy habits to overcome these emotions. Once we reach this phase we are able to turn elsewhere for the comfort that we need.

Learn to say no to false hunger
Distinguishing between emotional hunger and real, physical hunger is most important.Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).

How about an apple?
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. But emotional hunger craves fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush and feeling of satisfaction. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.

Once you pop you can’t stop
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire jar of Nutella without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.

Never satisfied
Emotional hunger isn’t instant satisfaction once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t lead to overeating. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.

Note to stomach: It’s not you it’s me!
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.

Kiss the guilt goodbye
Emotional hunger almost always leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that hadn’t been eating for nutritional reasons.

Control it now and you’ll thank yourself later
Emotional eating is a lot more common than one might think, and at some point all of us have looked to food for comfort. We need to be wary of the consequences though – emotional eating not only negatively affects our physical well-being, but it’s also falsely comforting, and often leads to even more negative emotions. Increased recognition and realization of when it occurs is essential for our mental well-being.