This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; registered dietitian – Maeve Hanan
Emotional eating is something that most of us have experienced, but how severe and how frequent this is can vary a lot between different people or at different times in our life. This article will explain what emotional eating really means and how we can respond to this in a compassionate and helpful way.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating was originally defined as eating in response to ‘negative emotions’ like sadness, anger, and fear. However, both positive and negative emotions have been linked with increased eating (1).
As we are always experiencing some form of emotion, it can be argued that all eating is emotional to some degree. But what we tend to mean by ‘emotional eating’ is an increase or change in eating in response to an emotion.
When this occurs in response to more difficult emotions as a coping mechanism this is sometimes called ‘comfort eating’.
It’s important to differentiate between binge eating and emotional eating. Although there are some similarities and cross over between these, they are separate forms of eating.
Binge eating involves eating an excessive amount of food in a way that feels out of control and distressing (2).
An episode of binge-eating is associated with three (or more) of the following (2):
- eating much more rapidly than normal
- eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
- eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
- feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
Strong emotions are a common trigger for binge eating, but when the above criteria is met this would technically be binge eating rather than emotional eating.
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder when binging occurs at least 1 day a week for 3 months and this doesn’t occur as part of another eating disorder and inappropriate compensatory behaviours (like purging, fasting, excessive exercise) don’t occur (2).
Why does emotional eating occur?
There are many different reasons why emotional eating can occur, which varies between different people.
This relates to our physiology as eating can make us feel good or distract from our emotions. We get energy, satisfaction and enjoyable tastes from food, so it makes sense that we can be drawn to this in the face of strong emotions. Seeking the feeling of fullness may also be appealing when emotions lead to feelings of emptiness.
Although a lot of the research has been carried out in animals rather than humans, tasty food can activate the reward system in the brain (3, 4). This could reduce sensitivity to dopamine, the ‘pleasure hormone’, over time which may trigger more compulsive eating (4).
Although any emotion can lead to emotional eating, stress is a common trigger. Chronic stress has been linked with increased levels of the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin, a reduction in the part of our brain associated with impulse control (the prefrontal cortex) and an increased food intake (4, 5, 6).
Those who restrict their food intake (i.e. diet) have been seen to be more likely to eat more in response to stress than those who don’t restrict their food intake (3). This may be related to hunger, the body’s survival mechanism in response to a food shortage and certain foods feeling more special and off-limits than others.
There’s a link between energy levels and our emotions that can go in both directions. If we are experiencing a low mood or intense emotions this lead to feeling lethargic and can impact our sleep, on the other hand, feeling tired can make it more difficult to meet our needs and function well which can impact our mood. We’re more likely to feel hungrier and consume more food, or higher-energy food, if struggling with sleep and energy levels (7, 8).
Emotional eating has also been seen to be a learned behaviour in childhood (9). For example, a study from 2019 found that ‘mindful parenting’ (i.e. bringing mindful awareness to parent-child interactions, being attentive, non-judgemental, compassionate, developing emotional awareness and self-regulation) was associated with less emotional eating in their children, linked to less parental stress and using food as a reward less often (10).
Whereas restricting a child’s intake, pressuring them to eat and using food as a reward have been linked with a worsened relationship with food, including increased reliance on food for comfort (10, 11).
Habits, including emotional eating, can also occur at other stages in life depending on the circumstances, support system and coping mechanisms that we have available.
Positive memories and experiences with certain foods throughout our life also builds emotional associations to food. Like fond memories of having ice cream while on holiday with our family.
Responding to emotional eating
How to best respond to emotional eating will very much depend on the individual circumstances surrounding this.
Bringing in as much self-compassion as possible can help with feeling better and moving on after this has happened. Otherwise, guilt and shame as a result of emotional eating and lead to more emotional eating or possible disordered behaviours like restricting food intake.
Self-compassion involves (12):
- being kind to yourself rather than judgemental
- understanding that emotional eating is a common human experience
- mindful awareness of the circumstances – such as unmet needs or triggers
Emotional eating is a valid coping mechanism that can be a safer option than other coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol. But emotional eating can be distressing at times, and may not help in addressing the underlying issue, particularly if it’s our only way of coping.
Having a range of coping mechanisms to draw can be helpful when it comes to responding to mental health issues and low mood (13). So food doesn’t need to be avoided as a coping mechanism, but it may be important to add in more coping strategies related to self-soothing and emotional regulation.
Having support from loved ones can also be really helpful, so that you can discuss your feelings and feel less isolated if you are struggling with this.
If you have a difficult relationship with food that includes ‘black and white’ thoughts about foods being ‘good or bad’, then working towards a more peaceful relationship with food is also important. This also helps to better meet your needs when it comes to eating, including responding to hunger, full and food preferences. Mindful and intuitive eating have been linked with less emotional eating as well as improved psychological health, including less disordered eating and bingeing (14, 15).
Don’t forget that this work takes time. Many people benefit from professional support from a mental health professional and a disordered eating or intuitive eating specialist dietitian as they navigate this, especially if you are struggling with this to the point that it impacts your quality of life.
Emotional eating is a very normal part of being a human that can present in lots of different ways.
The issue can be when this feels distressing or food is used as the only way to soothe emotions.
So it’s important to be kind to yourself when this occurs, to have a range of coping mechanisms available, and to seek support if this is having a negative impact on your life.
- Cardi, V., Leppanen, J., & Treasure, J. (2015). The effects of negative and positive mood induction on eating behaviour: A meta-analysis of laboratory studies in the healthy population and eating and weight disorders. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 57, 299-309. [accessed April 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26299807]
- Berkman, N. D., Brownley, K. A., Peat, C. M., Lohr, K. N., Cullen, K. E., Morgan, L. C., … & Bulik, C. M. (2015). Management and Outcomes of Binge-Eating Disorder [Internet]. [accessed April 2022 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338301/table/introduction.t1/]
- Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & behavior, 91(4), 449-458. [accessed April 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17543357/]
- Turton, R., Chami, R., & Treasure, J. (2017). Emotional eating, binge eating and animal models of binge-type eating disorders. Current obesity reports, 6(2), 217-228. [accessed April 2022 via: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13679-017-0265-8#citeas]
- Lutter, M., Sakata, I., Osborne-Lawrence, S., Rovinsky, S. A., Anderson, J. G., Jung, S., … & Zigman, J. M. (2008). The orexigenic hormone ghrelin defends against depressive symptoms of chronic stress. Nature neuroscience, 11(7), 752-753. [accessed April 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18552842/]
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- Lin, J., Jiang, Y., Wang, G., Meng, M., Zhu, Q., Mei, H., … & Jiang, F. (2020). Associations of short sleep duration with appetite‐regulating hormones and adipokines: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Obesity Reviews, 21(11), e13051. [accessed April 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32537891/]
- Leenaars, C. H., Klinkenberg, I. P., Aussems, A., Borger, N., Faatz, V., Hak, A., … & Kalsbeek, A. (2015). Sleep and food choice in a Dutch student population. Journal of Circadian Rhythms, 13. [accessed April 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27103932/]
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