If you're like most people, you don't just eat when you're hungry. You also turn to food when you're bored, fatigued, or stressed out.

Experts call this "emotional eating," and it can exact a heavy toll both on your weight and your sense of well-being. But if you recognize your own personal patterns of eating for reasons other than hunger, you've already taken the important first step toward getting on the path of healthy eating.

"Emotions can have a strong influence on what we choose to eat," says Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It is common to 'feed' an emotion, even when it is not food that is needed."

Emotional eating doesn't occur just during negative situations. Say that you've always equated happiness with eating ice cream sundaes with your family since you used to do that as a child. "You [may tend to] want to keep that happiness level high, so you go ahead and eat the sundae even though you aren't hungry," Thayer says.

Many individuals turn to food when they are angry or depressed, says Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE, national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Emotional eating is so connected to how we feel," she says. "And while physical hunger usually comes on gradually, emotional hunger comes on drastically. It's like an obsession."

How can you break the cycle, and start eating only when you're truly hungry?

  • Never use food as a reward, either for yourself or your kids, Thayer advises. "It's easy to tell your child you will buy her ice cream if she did well on a test," she says. Instead, reward her by spending an afternoon together walking in the park, or read her an extra book at night. Treat yourself to a massage or buy a new lipstick rather than indulge in a fattening meal out.
  • Keep a journal of the emotions you feel when you eat a particular food, Thayer says. When you are experiencing negative emotions and want to gorge yourself, write down how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being "starving."

"You can see where emotions are playing a role versus true hunger playing a role," Thayer explains. "You will be able to see through your journaling if certain foods are tied to certain emotions." If being lonely triggers the desire in you to consume a large bag of potato chips, figure out something you can do when loneliness strikes to distract yourself. Calling a friend or taking a walk with a friend may help.

  • Identify just what it is that you are craving, Sheth says. Once you've recognized what the problem food is, you can work to limit exposure to it.
  • But don't cut something out of your diet just because you think you won't be able to stop eating it once you start. While an inability to limit yourself portion-wise is common with emotional eating, you can learn to set bounds on how much you consume. "Figure out how to have the foods you crave in smaller portions," Thayer says. "For instance, if it's chips you want, buy a snack size or if it's a large bag, divide it up into single portion bags." 

Once you're able to convince yourself that you don't need to be forever deprived of a particular food, chances are that you'll relax and not fixate on consuming that food in unrealistically large portions even when you're not hungry.

Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE and Bethany Thayer, MS, RD reviewed this article.