Diabetes and Emotional Eating

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This leaflet is provided by Diabetes UK, the leading charity that cares for, connects with and campaigns on behalf of every person affected by, or at risk of diabetes.

The connection between feelings and food is one that starts from birth - from the very first time you cried and your mother soothed you with her milk. As you grew up, you may have been offered food to cheer you up or distract you, and now as an adult you may find yourself eating in response to life's stresses and difficulties. Food is not just a fuel, it has been conditioned as a soother of emotions throughout our entire lives. 'Emotional', 'comfort', 'binge', 'non-hunger' and 'boredom eating' are all ways of describing the tendency to use food to deal with problems other than hunger - problems it wasn't designed to fix.

Fast forward to the diagnosis of diabetes and you are suddenly required to change or limit previously enjoyed food choices. Your doctor may have told you that healthy eating is one of the crucial elements of optimal diabetes control; but given the link between food and emotions, it's hardly surprising that encouragement to cut down on fatty and sugary food is sometimes difficult to implement. You know in your head what you should be doing, but it's hard to break away from the pattern of food as an instant route to pleasure, distraction and satisfaction.

The goal is to reach a place in which you can make a decision about whether or not to eat when you are feeling emotional - rather than it just being an automatic response. An important point to remember is that everyone - of every shape and size - can use food to deal with their emotions, and occasionally it can be fine to use food in this way. The danger is when food becomes the only way to deal with emotions or life's problems.

The most important step towards change is to become more mindful of your eating behaviour. Try and get in touch with which emotion you are feeling as you reach for the food. It may be positive or negative. Start by labelling it: is it anger, sadness, fury, excitement, hurt, disappointment, excitement, sadness, triumph, boredom, loneliness, shyness, feeling unattractive, worthless?

You might like to say to yourself, 'I am ...' and fill in the blank. For example:

  • "I am [insert emotion] at [insert situation/person/trigger for emotion] because [insert reason]".
  • "I am upset at my partner because he/she forgot our anniversary".
  • "I am angry at the bus driver because he saw me running for the bus stop and didn't wait".

After having done this exercise, you may still go ahead and eat the food - don't beat yourself up for this! Change takes time and by simply pausing and thinking about the reasons behind your actions you are making a great start. If you eat after a moment of reflection, you are identifying the reason why you are eating and that is the first step towards making a change.

You might like to think of some other way to express, distract or soothe these emotions - engage in an activity, talk to someone about how you are feeling or write it down - whatever feels 'do-able' for you.

By becoming aware of your emotions you can see that they have evolved to support and guide you. With time, emotions can become your friend rather than an enemy to be dulled with food.

  1. Before you eat, pause and think: "Is this really what I want?" Whatever the answer, pausing and asking yourself this question allows you to create a space between the usual impulse to eat and the behavioural action of eating.
  2. Make changes to your environment to support you. You might like to leave a post-it note on the fridge or cupboard door with a helpful question like, "Is the answer in here?" or "What else will make me feel good?"
  3. If you are feeling a strong emotion - think about how you can express it, rather than dull it with food. You could punch a pillow, talk to someone, have a cry, write a letter or email (even if you don't send it).
  4. Make a list of a range of distracting activities to try before you default to the familiar pattern of reaching for food - stroke your pet, investigate something fun on the internet, research a day out with the family, do a Sudoku® puzzle, paint your nails, engage in a hobby, have a nap ...
  5. Talk to those you live with and ask for their support - can they do anything differently that might help you? Keep distracting food out of reach, give you a hug when you need one, encourage you when you're finding it tough? Knowing you're not alone helps.

Content used with permission from the Diabetes UK - Food Psychology. Copyright for this leaflet is with Diabetes UK.

Original Author:
Diabetes UK
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Diabetes UK
Document ID:
29238 (v1)
Last Checked:
15/04/2016
Next Review:
15/04/2019
Now read about Assessment of the Patient with Established Diabetes

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