Fast Exit

December 4, 2023 Dec 04, 2023 7 min read

The Roots of Hunger – Overcoming Emotional Eating


  • The roots of hunger - emotional eating and trauma
  • Learning to express your emotions in a healthy way
  • Childhood neglect and abuse can create unhealthy food choices
  • Taking care of yourself emotionally and physically
  • Steps to take to eat well for health and well-being

Food is our first source of survival and nourishment. We know that babies cannot survive long without being fed. But that is not enough. They cannot thrive without physical affection and a caretaker who connects with them emotionally and mentally.

If you've been deprived of attention, love, and support as a baby or child, you may seek comfort in food.

When parents soothe children with their loving care, children learn how to soothe themselves. They find out how to manage their emotions and not get overwhelmed. If parents are able to give enough guidance and love, the children develop their own ability to calm down and deal with their feelings in constructive ways.

Without that connection and learning, children are left without many emotional tools. Everyone gets angry, sad, scared, and worried, and we all need to cope with these feelings, express them, and reach out to others for support and help. If you’ve been abused and neglected, you may struggle with these feelings that have to go somewhere. Food can become the place to go to try to stop being overwhelmed. 

During COVID, many people gained weight. This was at least in part because, being cooped up at home and isolated, people turned to cooking and food to overcome worry and stress. 

When you have been traumatized, you have some level of stress that you are managing most of the time. So when you have additional stress, food becomes a refuge.

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How to deal with emotional eating

If you have strong cravings even after you have eaten enough, ask yourself, What am I really craving? What am I really feeling? If you can answer those questions, stop and reflect on how you feel. You may not have been able to even express your feelings as a child. Parents who can’t nurture their children often say, “You are too sensitive. Stop crying,” and they may punish their children for showing any sadness, anger, fear, or any intense emotion. In the case of sexual abuse, children must bear the unbearable in silence, often turning the bad feelings on themselves instead of where they belong.  

Dealing with emotions in a healthier way

Allow yourself to express your feelings. If you don’t express them, the feelings are still there. This is when you may feel compelled to turn to food to manage them.

Think about other ways you can soothe yourself when you feel overwhelmed by emotions and feel like turning to food. You need something to feel better. This emotional hunger can be met in so many other ways.

Imagine different forms of pleasure that can help counteract the negative feelings. Walking in nature, playing a sport, dancing, listening to music, talking to a friend, going to a movie, reading, writing, creating – whatever provides an outlet to feel better and less overwhelmed. 

Another issue is the kind of food you may crave. Research on adverse childhood experiences has shown that people who have had traumatic childhoods can have a sensitivity to certain foods. These include sugar, flour, and carbohydrates. When you eat candy, chocolate cookies, and pastries and feel a switch that you can’t turn off, it is because these foods may lift your mood. Food becomes a way to manage intense feelings you weren’t allowed to feel and express when you were a child.

Emotional flashbacks and thinking clearly

Emotional flashbacks can send you back to these high-calorie foods that are best eaten in small amounts. In large amounts over time, they can create serious health problems. But in the short term, they also create brain fog or fuzzy thinking. As someone who is already dealing with trauma, this makes it harder for you to think clearly and control negative thoughts and memories.

Take care of yourself

Treating yourself well with the right amount of nutritious food is a way of saying no to your past abuse and neglect. It is a way of giving yourself the care, attention, and respect that are your deeper desires. When you eat well, both your mind and body respond. There is a natural pull toward being healthy, if you support it.

If you are overweight, begin by being kind to yourself. Don’t allow critical comments by people who can’t understand you to hurt you. Instead, join a support group focused on overcoming eating issues. The exaggerated value placed on being thin in some cultures gives people, especially women, an unrealistic and unhealthy image to judge themselves.. Letting go of distorted social expectations will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, have a clear-thinking mind, and a happier life.

Weight as a way to hide

If you have been sexually abused, hiding and camouflaging yourself with weight may make you feel safe. Here, the challenge is to realize you may not be fully aware of how you feel and how you are avoiding ever going through that kind of abuse again. If you face this, you can explore how to feel stronger and be confident that you can protect yourself. Depriving yourself of good health and happy relationships is not your fate. You have the power to change.

Steps to manage emotional eating


    1. Begin daily exercise – at least 30 minutes.
    2. Educate yourself about healthy foods and avoid extreme diets.
    3. Plan activities to pursue when you feel overwhelmed instead of eating.
    4. Join a support group. 
    5. Set an intention to take care of yourself and treat yourself well at all times.
    6. Remember to be patient with any setbacks and keep going. 
    7. Ignore any discouraging remarks and set your boundaries.


Eating can become a problem if you have been traumatized or grew up feeling neglected and abused and were not allowed to express your emotions. Food can become a substitute for love and affection and a way to soothe yourself. If you haven’t been able to express your emotions or haven’t learned how to manage them in a healthy way, you can tend to use food to express these feelings that don’t go away.

There are steps to take to change your relationship with food so you can be healthier and more in control. Expressing your feelings, joining a support group, doing daily exercise, and choosing healthy foods as the main part of your diet can all help you manage your eating. You can eat when you are hungry, make taking care of yourself a priority, and find other ways to deal with overwhelming emotions.

About The Author

Susan Ellis studied psychology and anthropology at Barnard College and the University of Chicago. She has worked in many aspects of publishing, including editing and marketing scholarly journals, mainstream magazines, and books on psychology and psychoanalysis.

Mindful Eating Journal​

This journal is designed to empower you to cultivate a healthier and happier relationship with food. This journal prompts daily reflections on your emotions, triggers, and actions related to eating. From rating moods to crafting action plans, it provides a roadmap for recognizing and managing emotional eating. Use consistently to facilitate a deeper understanding of your habits and be empowered to make positive changes over time. Remember, progress takes patience; seeking professional support is encouraged.

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