Eating With Intent: Recognizing Emotional Eating vs. Mindless Eating

Emotional Eating

Eating can be a satisfying experience that also supplies your body with the necessary nutrients. But for emotional eaters, eating leads to guilt, shame, and negative emotions. These feelings might arise from an inability to control the desire to eat, or from eating too much of the wrong kinds of food. It’s common for people to turn to food when they don’t know how to deal with emotions–but why? And what’s the difference between emotional eating and mindful eating?

Emotional eating: What is it, and why does it happen?

Emotional eating is a way to cope with difficult feelings and emotions. It’s a tactic people use to self-sooth, and often involves eating food that isn’t healthy or satisfying so-called comfort foods. It is important to be aware of this behavior, as it can lead to unhealthy eating habits and weight gain over time. You should also know the difference between emotional eating and healthy eating. Healthy eating is fueled by a desire to nourish your body, while emotional eating is driven by the urge to numb discomfort and relieve stress and difficult emotions.

Some strategies that may help with emotional eating include journaling, deep breathing, going for a walk, or even taking five minutes to focus on your breath. Journaling provides insight into thoughts and is a way to process emotions. Deep breathing exercises can also help manage stress and anxiety. Going on a walk can provide a distraction, while also providing fresh air and exercise.

Why do some people turn to food when they’re feeling stressed or dealing with an emotional crisis?  Eating comfort food gives an instant sense of comfort and control, which can help boost your mood. Comfort food often has a nostalgic aspect that can trigger happy memories, which can help override negative thoughts and feelings. So, it can make you feel better, at least temporarily.

Unfortunately, emotional eating can also lead to weight gain. If you use food as a reward for good behavior (like losing weight) or as punishment for bad behavior (like cheating on your diet), this further gives food power over your emotions and habits.

How do you know if you are an emotional eater?

Emotional eating is a coping mechanism. If you eat more when you are stressed, sad, bored, or angry, it’s likely that you are trying to cope with feelings rather than true hunger. Emotional eaters use eating as an escape from negative emotions, such as depression or loneliness. Although eating a plate of cookies might give temporary comfort, it does not solve the underlying issue that causes you to feel emotional pain in the first place.

How is emotional eating different than mindless eating?

There’s another type of eating that can lead to weight gain and other issues. It’s called mindless eating. What is the difference between emotional eating and mindless eating? Emotional eating is not only about the act of eating, but also about the emotions that go along with it.

Mindless eating is more about the process of eating: what you do while you eat. It can entail eating in front of a computer or television, eating too quickly, or even eating when you’re not hungry.  It’s eating without paying attention to hunger or satiety cues, and often consuming food beyond caloric needs. When you unconsciously nibble on a bag of open potato chips while working at your computer, you’re eating mindlessly.

Mindless eating is often spurred by external cues, such as the sight and smell of food, or social situations. However, mindless eating doesn’t have the same link with emotional discomfort as emotional eating.

Mindless vs. Mindful Eating

Mindless eating is the opposite of mindful eating, a more healthful and adaptive way to eat a meal or snack. When you eat mindlessly, you’re not fully conscious of the eating experience. But when you eat mindfully, the opposite is true. You tune in to the sensory characteristics of the food you’re eating – the taste, aroma, texture, and how it looks. You’re fully aware of each bite you take. The goal should be to replace mindless eating with a mindful approach to enjoying food:

  • Focus on the food you’re eating.
  • Eat slowly, and don’t rush through your meal.
  • Eat in a quiet place with no distractions like TV or music.
  • Put the fork down and decide whether you’re still hungry.
  • Pay attention to how it feels when you chew each bite of food. Don’t just swallow without tasting! Do this for at least three meals per week until it becomes second nature for you. Then try incorporating mindfulness into all your meals throughout the week.

The point isn’t perfection–it’s progress towards making better choices for yourself. When you focus on eating mindfully, rather than wolfing down food without awareness, you’re more mindful about what goes into your body too. You’ll naturally make smarter food choices.

Mindful eating vs. emotional eating

Emotional eating is a tougher nut to crack because deep-seated emotions motivate emotional eating, and you need to address these issues. In contrast, mindless eating is less driven by emotions and more by unawareness. Adopting a focused mindful eating strategy can help correct mindless eating.

In contrast, if you’re an emotional eater, you’ll need to address the emotions that drive you to eat, and that may require the help of a counselor. If you think you’re an emotional eater, instead distract yourself with a stress-busting activity incompatible with eating, like working out, taking a hot bath, or going for a walk with a friend.


Emotional eating and mindless eating both require changing the way you approach food, but it’s easier to replace mindless eating with mindful eating than to deal with the emotional issues that trigger emotional eating. But with greater awareness (in the case of mindless eating) or the help of a therapist (emotional eating), you can learn to adopt healthier eating habits.


  • Czepczor-Bernat K, Brytek-Matera A, Gramaglia C, Zeppegno P. The moderating effects of mindful eating on the relationship between emotional functioning and eating styles in overweight and obese women. Eat Weight Disord. 2020 Aug;25(4):841-849. doi: 10.1007/s40519-019-00740-6. Epub 2019 Jul 16. PMID: 31313253; PMCID: PMC7399674.
  • Mindful Eating. The Nutrition Source. Published September 14, 2020. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/
  • Tips to stop emotional eating. Mayo Clinic. Published 2022. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342.

Related Articles By Cathe:

5 Steps to Conquer Emotional Eating

What Causes Emotional Eating and How to Stop It

5 Ways to Curb Mindless Overeating

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