What’s the Difference between Cravings and Emotional Eating?

Do you ever feel like you’ve been ‘good’ but then just blow it? Do you think about food all the time and can’t get it off your mind until you’ve finished off whatever ‘treats’ you have in the cupboard? Are thoughts of food interfering with other areas of your life?

It is possible to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and to sort it out. And if you know what the problem is, then it’s much easier to deal with it! That’s why it can be helpful to differentiate between cravings and emotional eating. The video and blog below explain the difference between the two and give you some tips to help you tackle the problem.

Cravings are physiological or physical urges. It’s easiest to think about this is terms of thirst. If you’re thirsty you want something to drink. If this is a physiological urge, it probably won’t matter too much what you drink, you just want something to hydrate your body. You may prefer water but if you are really thirsty a fizzy drink, or a glass of milk should do the job. If you are after something specific, like a Diet Coke, a Fanta or a coffee, then this is not so much of a physiological urge, but more of an emotional desire. And similarly, when you are craving a very specific food, then it’s not likely to be a physiological craving and may be triggered by something more emotional. With a craving, you would be satisfied with your next meal or snack, or something in the broad categories of ‘sweet’ or ‘savoury’.

There are sometimes some blurred lines; for example, your craving could be affected by the sugar cycle. If you have consumed quite a lot of sugar, then your blood sugar levels will reach a peak. Insulin is released to bring the levels down and at this point you might experience an energy crash. You will crave more sugary foods to bring your blood sugar up again. So technically this is a craving as it is a physiological urge, but it’s quite likely it’s brought about by emotionally eating in the first place.  

So, cravings are usually experienced because of hunger, thirst, or changes in hormone levels, as in pregnancy, where your body is encouraging you to eat something specific to meet a certain need, perhaps for a vitamin or mineral. Cravings also tend to come on gradually, and once you’ve had the food or drink you need you will be satisfied and don’t feel any kind of guilt.

With Emotional eating the urge to eat or drink a specific thing will probably come on quite suddenly. You certainly won’t be satisfied by just having something healthy, like chopped vegetables, but instead you’ll want a chocolate bar, some crisps, or something else that’s sugary, starchy or carb-y! There will be an element of guilt when you’re eating, you won’t be satisfied by what you’ve eaten, and you are soon likely to be searching for more things to eat.

And because one is a physiological and the other an emotional urge, the ways that we need to respond and deal with them are different:

If you are experiencing physiological cravings, then it’s best to make sure that your diet has a wide range of everything in it. Try to include:

  • lots of whole foods, those complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which will help and prevent peaks and dips in your blood sugar.  
  • protein and healthy fats which will keep you feeling full and satisfied,
  • and don’t forget to drink enough water to keep you hydrated throughout the day.

A broad and balanced diet will help get rid of these kinds of cravings.

Tackling emotional eating is a bit trickier. There are lots of reasons why we emotionally eat:

  • You may eat when you experience a negative emotion, like feeling sad, or lonely or angry, and you reach for food to fill that gap.
  • You may be reward-eating where you believe that you deserve something nice, so you can have a less healthy ‘treat’ because you deserve it.
  • You might be experiencing harmony eating, where you don’t want to let other people down, so you eat to create harmony.  

And there are other kinds of emotional eating too, but whichever you are experiencing, to tackle it you need to address two things:  

  • Meet the original need that prompted the emotional eating, and
  • Understand what’s really going on and get to the root cause.

Quick fixes won’t work here. When you understand the root of the problem, it is possible to meet that need in other ways than eating. We all need to take some responsibility for ourselves, to ‘bring the adult into the room’ and recognise what we really want when we look at the bigger picture. That usually involves making some decisions in advance and setting yourself up to succeed:  

  • Make sure that your environment is helpful: don’t have an abundance of food in the house that you are likely to eat emotionally.
  • Work on your reasoning and your motivations; it’s helpful to take a step back and articulate for yourself why you really don’t want to act out those emotional eating behaviours.  

Doing these things will help you to apply your adult brain, so that you don’t react like a toddler when something emotional happens to you. 

Of course, this is not about suppressing your emotions either, because part of what you’re doing when you’re eating emotionally is to try and cover things up. It’s much better to deal with emotions and let them happen!

If you want to find out more, we have an Emotional Eating Quiz to help you work out which of the emotional eating types best describes you. We also offer our ‘End Emotional Eating’ mini-course, with 6 video modules, worksheets and Bible studies, which you can work through in your own time.


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