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Are You a Food Addict, Emotional Eater or Simply a Nibbler?

Author: Julie Latz ~ April 9, 2014

As a Food Psychology Coach, I come across people who have all different types of issues and patterns with regard to overeating.  Although each of these people feels afflicted and distressed by their behaviors and the related consequences, there are dramatic differences between those I call “nibblers”, “emotional eaters”, and the very disordered type of eating that accompanies true “food addiction”.

When I talk about a “nibbler” I am referring to the person who has no real emotional attachment to the food they are consuming.  For example, this could be someone who is watching TV and sits down with a bag of potato chips and polishes it off without even giving it a thought. When they look at the empty bag they can’t believe it’s gone!  My mother-in-law, who does the crossword puzzle every day, often has a jar of nuts sitting next to her.  She mindlessly eats one after the other, not even cognizant of what she is doing.

The nibbler is generally a person who is somewhat overweight but their weight doesn’t change much over time.  The reason for this is that they don’t overdo it with food on a regular basis, enough for it to dramatically affect their weight.  However, they are heavy because they do consume too many calories during these episodes.  They are basically mindless eaters.

If you are a nibbler, I suggest that you take a portion of whatever food you want to eat during the given activity and put it in a bowl instead of having a huge portion like a bag, box or jar to keep dipping into.  If you are eating while watching TV, I encourage you to wait for a commercial before you eat your goodies.  Or again if you are doing something like a crossword puzzle, take a break and then eat your snack. Do it mindfully and be part of the experience to allow eating to go from an unconscious to a conscious behavior.

How do you know if you are an “emotional eater”?  This is the person who turns to food to take the edge off an emotion they would like to escape. An emotional eater may sit down with a box of donuts or a gallon of ice cream and do some pretty bad damage with them before they feel absolutely disgusting both physically and emotionally when they are done.

They engage in this behavior in order to free themselves from the burden of an emotion they are having a hard time dealing with.  It’s their reward for having to go through whatever is troubling them and the feeling is that food won’t hurt them (well, not right away at least), it won’t talk back and it provides comfort.  The emotional eater usually makes this overindulgence an event.  If they got in a fight with their husband, or got fired from their job, they may really go to town with their indulgences, but then they get on with their day.  It eventually turns into a snowball effect where they continue to eat that way all day long.  And by the way, not all emotional eating comes from attempting to block negative thoughts or events. Many emotional eaters reward themselves with food when they are very happy about something.

My suggestion for the emotional eater is to stop for a moment before they dive into their desired indulgence.  I’m not suggesting they don’t eat the food they want to eat. But instead, just give some thought to how much of it they really want to eat. Instead of making the experience one of mindless eating, the emotional eater should make sure the food they are planning to eat will actually do the trick in terms of helping them take the edge off what they are feeling and how much they honestly need to accomplish that.

For example, one would be much better off sitting down with two donuts instead of a whole box and enjoying every bite and again, being part of the experience. They should not rush through the food but instead, realize that they are choosing to do this consciously to help themselves through a tough time. At the same time, they should do it in a way that won’t make them miserable when they are done eating.

Lastly is the lifestyle of the “food addict” or “binge eater”. This is characterized as a true eating disorder in which the person feels like a slave to food. They have the same attributes that the nibbler and emotional eater have, but basically they feel totally controlled by food. The food addict is always either gaining or losing weight depending on whether they are dieting or bingeing.

This person can be set off by an emotional upset and begin overeating because of it, but this then leads to an entire day (or days, weeks, months) of this sort of self-destructive behavior.  They let food run their life. They are uncomfortable getting from point A to point B in their day without having access to their binge foods or next “fix”.  A food addict eats huge amounts of food whether they are hungry or not.  And one of the main attributes to this sort of overeater is that they eat most of their food in private. They can’t bear for friends, family or coworkers to see how much they really eat.

Having been a binge eater myself for 45 years, I can tell you that living that way totally sucks the joy out of everyday living. It is like any other addiction where it has a hold on you and although you want to stop, logic and knowledge of the consequences of this behavior are of no use to helping you stop.

What I encourage my clients to do is to get in touch with what their bodies really need and want. For example, ask yourself what you are really in the mood to eat before eating anything. Are you actually hungry or are you thirsty?  Do you want warm food, cold food, something creamy, crunchy, salty or sweet?  When you listen to what your body actually needs and wants, you eat it without multitasking, and really pay attention to the consistency and taste, you will become satisfied and not feel the need to go from food to food.  The reason we go from one food to the next is that we are eating mindlessly and just shoveling food into our mouths that we like, but it may not be what will truly satisfy us.

Another suggestion I make to my clients is to stop setting goals you can’t reach.  If you don’t like to exercise, don’t start promising yourself you will go to the gym five days a week because you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment.  Maybe you are better off deciding that you would like to aim for walking 10 minutes a day 3 times a week.  What if you really don’t like drinking water?  Then don’t decide that you are going to drink 8 glasses a day.  You won’t be able to maintain that.

It comes down to changing how you define success for yourself with regards to your attempts to lose weight.  I suggest instead of only feeling successful if you do all the things you think are in your best interest (many of which you don’t like or want to do), make success by doing some of these things some of the time or doing them in a way that you can maintain those efforts. Do it on your terms not on what you think success is all about.

For a free audio, The 5 Beliefs That Keep You Out of Control with Food, click here to visit my website at

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Stop Binge Eating and Start Living Again
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