Healthy Choices with Health Coach Liza Baker: Emotional eating – what are your triggers?

In last month’s column, we dove into the topic of emotional eating by looking at the differences between physical and emotional hunger.

If you took the challenge and spent some time tracking your hunger, you may have discovered that most of the time you are headed to the kitchen, you aren’t really physically hungry. And for some of us, just knowing that is enough for us to stop our hand as it reaches into the cookie jar.

Let’s be honest, though—for many of us, that awareness is not enough. The past year has brought 61 percent of Americans “unwanted weight changes” (yeah, that’s a euphemism; read: weight gain) to the tune of an average 29 pounds, some of which arrived due to an increase in emotional/stress eating. Because what has the pandemic brought us but a boatload of stress, fear, anger, and sadness?

Not to worry, though!

If simply knowing you are not physically hungry doesn’t stop you from eating, you can learn to escape the tendency to feed your emotions at three other phases of the cycle.

A cycle of stuck

Emotional eating is a cycle—one that Integrative Nutrition® calls “a cycle of stuck:”

  1. We experience a trigger.
  2. We feel an emotion.
  3. We feel hungry—and now we know that it’s emotional hunger.
  4. We eat—usually a lot—in response to that hunger.
  5. We feel guilt or shame about our eating.
  6. And we’re back at step 2….

Cycling out | Triggers

It is possible to escape this cycle—and the stage at which that becomes possible for us differs for every individual: Integrative Nutrition® is based on the principle of bio-individuality, which states that we are all different (I call it being “unique-orns”), and what works for one may not work for another.

The four stages I teach clients trying to cycle out are simplified to:

  • Hunger
  • Trigger
  • Emotion
  • Desire

And we’ll be taking a closer look at each stage in the next few months.

As I mention above, the first stage of working our way out of this cycle of stuck is identifying whether our hunger is physical or emotional.

The second stage is to identify what triggered our “hunger”—not the emotion itself but the reason we experienced the emotion. And triggers come in many shapes and sizes.


Certain places can affect how much and what we eat—and like smells, they’re often tied to memories.

  • Do you tend to eat more at your parents’ house than you do at your own?
  • How about on the couch in front of the TV or at the dinner table?
  • In a restaurant (if you remember what that is) or at home?


  • Are you “hungry” because it’s breakfast (or lunch or dinner) time?
  • Do you eat on a schedule rather than because you are physically hungry?
  • Do you eat before or after doing certain activities, like exercising?
  • Do you tend to eat more at dinner than at breakfast or vice versa?
  • Do you eat “preventatively” because you know you get “hangry”—a combination of hungry and angry experienced by those who let their blood sugar drop just a little too low?

Sleep (as in lack of)

  • Have you ever noticed that you eat more (especially more refined carbohydrates) after a poor night’s sleep?
  • Do you reach for caffeine when you need energy?
  • Or are sugar and refined carbs your go-to when you’re tired?

Other people

  • Do you find yourself eating out of obligation? (She cooked this for me, it would be rude not to….)
  • How about due to peer pressure? (Everyone else is getting a burger. I was going to have a salad, but….)
  • Does a phone call with your mom send you to the chip bag?
  • Or does a meeting with your boss end with your face in the ice cream?

Cultural messages

  • “It’s the holidays—time to splurge!”
  • “We’re eating at a fancy restaurant—we’re expected to have all the courses.”
  • “In our culture, we celebrate with food.” (Have you ever noticed that just as most religions claim to hold the monopoly on guilt, most mothers claim that their culture celebrates with food?)

Preceding events

  • Did you just have an uncomfortable conversation at work?
  • Were you relieved to have survived a presentation you were dreading?
  • Did your teenager just have a meltdown?
  • Did you just narrowly avoid an accident?

Anybody feeling triggered just reading this list?

Good. Because that’s your challenge for the next few weeks!

The challenge: play journalist

Last month, you were asked to play scientist: look objectively at your hunger and decide whether it’s physical or emotional.

For the next few weeks, play journalist. Remember learning about journalism in your high school English class? You were taught to ask Who? What? When? Where? Why? And how? And now we’re going to apply that to your emotional eating triggers.

Remember: it’s not identifying the emotion that drives you to eat; rather, it’s about noticing that you’re emotionally hungry and figuring out what triggered the emotion. Use the list above as a starting point (it’s far from complete!) and download this worksheet to keep track.

Here’s the process:

  • Keep tracking physical vs. emotional hunger.
  • In addition, once you have begun to notice when you are eating due to emotional hunger, start tracking what triggered that response: who, what, when, where, why, how
  • I know, it feels like a lot of work, all this tracking! And if you are trying to get a handle on your emotional eating tendencies, you won’t get there through self-discipline and willpower: that’s like trying to close a gaping wound in need of stitches with a Band-aid.
  • Again, give yourself some grace around eating (or not eating) when you’re emotionally hungry this week: this work takes time.

Next month, we’ll dig into the third step of cycling out of emotional eating; in the meantime, let me know by email what patterns you identify!

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.

MAIN PHOTO by Andres Ayrton from Pexels

Healthy Choices with Health Coach Liza Baker: Sweet Emotions