What is Emotional Eating? Causes, Symptoms & More
The term “emotional eating” is one many of us have heard at some point in our lives. It’s quite likely you’ve even found yourself emotionally eating at some point in the past as well.
But can you really answer the question: “what is emotional eating?”
You see, it’s more than just an isolated incident of scoffing down a bag of Doritos when you’ve had a bad day (although that can and does happen). Today we’re going to unpack the term emotional eating, what it is and what causes it. Then, I’ll cover a few points on identifying if you’re truly physically hungry or eating emotionally — and what you can do to overcome it.
What is emotional eating?
Simply put, emotional eating is when you use food to make yourself feel better. You are not physically hungry, but you’re instead using food to comfort yourself.
But it’s seldom that easy to define emotional eating or recognize it in the moments before it happens. Oftentimes, you may feel hunger — intense hunger, even — when really it is your emotions and feelings that are causing the sensation. These emotions could be seemingly harmless, everyday feelings…
Bored? Netflix and some popcorn to pass the time.
Celebrating? A few sweet treats with friends at your favourite coffee spot.
Other times, emotional eating is caused by much deeper coping mechanisms your body and mind have designed to mask unresolved trauma.
And when either of these situations turns into an ongoing habit, it can begin to impact your quality of life, relationships, confidence, self-talk, body image and more.
So, while it’s true many people do turn to food for comfort — whether that be for stress relief or to simply feel better after a long day — it’s important to become aware of those moments of emotional eating and begin to think critically about your relationship with food.
Another way to begin identifying emotional eating is to evaluate your feelings before, during and after eating. For many of us, we may feel much better while eating, only to get a rush of negative emotions after we’ve put down the fork. That is one sign of emotional eating.
But, I don’t believe in using labels such as being “an emotional eater.”
Any situation can be overcome with work, love and the right support. You much more than a temporary label.
But when I have to define what emotional eating and what an emotional eater is to my clients, I simply say it’s using food to cope with difficult situations. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we can turn to food when we’re stressed, bored or even looking to reward ourselves, such as to celebrate a work milestone.
This is no different than those that turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, binge-watching TV, gambling and a whole plethora of “distractions” that keep us from feeling the emotions that are surfacing. And, more often than not, the food associated with emotional eating is nutrient deficient, junk food.
What causes emotional eating?
I’ve pointed out that there are various reasons why a person might find themselves emotionally eating. Let’s go over a few of the most common ones a bit more in depth.
We’ve all been here. Work, studies, relationships — the cause of stress is irrelevant. What matters here is the way your emotions have a physical effect on your hormones, which then cause your body to call out for certain foods. High-stress levels, especially when your stress has become chronic, results in high cortisol levels.
And cortisol triggers cravings (aka emotional eating) for sweet and salty things. This is why we often tend to reach for sweets or other high-calorie foods when we’re feeling stressed.
Intense or unaddressed emotions
Eating can be a convenient (and quick) way to distract yourself from certain uncomfortable emotions — or even a sudden rush of positive emotions that are looking for an outlet. That’s right! Emotional eating isn’t just when we’re feeling down. Some of these emotions include anxiety, joy, fear, sadness, loneliness, pride, shame, guilt and/or resentment.
Similar to how emotions may cause us to turn to food, certain foods may actually evoke emotions we are seeking.
Think about your favourite food in the whole world. Why is it your favourite?
More often than not, a memory will come to mind. You have probably eaten and enjoyed this food with a loved one as a child.
As you begin to learn what emotional eating is — and the emotions or foods that are triggers for you — you’ll also learn how to start feeling and working through these emotions in more healthy, productive ways.
Eating with family can quite often lead to occasions where you find yourself overindulging.
Family is one of the most influential forces I see when working with clients who want to overcome emotional eating. It could be because of pressures or ideals your family held as a collective that perhaps you did not consciously agree to, such as “you need to finish everything on your plate” or seeing your mum avoid carbs at the dinner table.
It could also be modelling behaviours you developed at a young age.
For example, if your family really enjoys large meals and big get-togethers were regular occurrences in your young life, you may find yourself turning to those foods when you are seeking a familial bond as an adult.
Social behaviours and peer pressure
Going out for meals, parties or social events can create mixed emotions for many people. Especially when food is involved.
As humans, we seek the approval of those around us. So, comments or behaviours of your friends — even if not directed at you — may create embarrassment, fear or a need to restrict when you are out together. This, in turn, results in emotional eating when you’re alone again.
Or, you may find yourself continually overeating when with friends, be it because you get lost in conversation or you simply over-order when the server comes to take requests.
In other scenarios, emotional eating may be a symptom of other issues. For example, if you feel social anxiety in new groups or large parties, you may avoid engaging with people, finding yourself sitting on the sidelines and occupying your hands with food from the buffet table instead.
How often do you find yourself searching for food when bored?
It’s likely quite often.
Feeling bored in the moment or unfulfilled with your life can have us turning to food. This is a physical way to fill a void that you are feeling. In this case, emotional eating often makes us feel good. It can turn into a way of filling your time, distracting you from the overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction you are feeling.
Unhealthy habits developed in childhood
Kids are often rewarded for good behaviour — such as good grades, finishing chores and more — with sweet treats.
When you were feeling sad as a child were you offered sweets? Or was there always a trip to the ice cream parlour waiting after a dentist’s appointment?
These “treats” are often intended to illicite a certain behaviour or compliance as a child. And they can be very successful. Sometimes too successful!
If you find yourself regularly rewarding or “celebrating” accomplishments with a lavish meal, extra dessert or other food, you are probably emotional eating.
How do our emotions cause hunger?
Our body is an incredible thing. Our mind can actually convince us that we are feeling hungry when, in fact, we are just experiencing certain emotions.
Many times your emotions will cause you to want foods you don’t usually eat, and you’ll be able to recognise emotional eating in that way. Just think of the classic rom-com movies that show the character eating a tub of ice cream after a breakup.
But that’s not always the case. There are a lot of different things going on in your body that cause you to crave certain foods based on certain emotions or memories.
You see, there are actually chemicals in the brain that affect our appetites and our mood.
K-State research gave a great example: Stress causes an elevation in brain chemicals (galanin and neuropeptide Y) that increase the desire for fatty foods and carbohydrates. So, if you often have the urge for chocolate when you’re feeling down, it’s because your body knows that the carbohydrate (sugar) in the chocolate will cause a release of serotonin and endorphins. And this will improve your mood, giving you that feel-good feeling.
It’s no wonder it’s hard to stop the cycle of emotional eating. Your body sees it as a reward! And the more pleasure you experience, the more you continue to seek that pleasure.
In this example of emotional eating, that happens to be chocolate.
What are the signs of emotional eating?
Food plays a massive role in our lives and every single person has eaten food for reasons other than physical hunger at some point.
Just because you’ve eaten when you’re not physically hungry, doesn’t mean you’re automatically a habitual emotional eater.
In a similar sentiment, if you find that you do have a habit of emotional eating, you are not “bad.” Understanding and recognising emotional eating should not be a means to impose restrictive diets or behaviours on yourself.
You can stop the cycle of emotional eating, but it’s not going to be with a new diet. Seeking the help of an experienced coach will be an important part of your food freedom journey. They will help you understand “what is emotional eating,” teach you how to recognize it, compassionately guide you toward healthy alternatives and help you find the root cause of your desire to turn to food.
Here are a few signs you may be emotionally eating:
1. You eat when you’re stressed
When you know you have a massive amount of work that needs doing, a tight deadline, an important exam coming up, etc — you subconsciously reach for food.
2. You eat when you feel sad
When you’re sad and looking for comfort your immediate reaction is to find it in food. And often you find it in food with the least nutritional value.
3. You eat to feel happy
We all feel happy when we eat certain foods, but you can find yourself emotionally dependent on certain foods. You find positive emotions from eating foods when you aren’t physically hungry and you carry on eating long after you know you should have stopped.
4. You eat as a response to how you are feeling
Whether you’re anxious, tired, stressed, bored, angry, lonely, hurt, sad or disappointed, you eat. You reach for food before anything else when you feel a certain way, and it’s become your normal.
5. You eat or continue to think of eating when you are full
No matter how much you’ve eaten or how physically full your stomach is, you don’t feel satisfied. The feel-good satisfaction you get from eating along with the mixed emotions is a very momentary fix. You think about food often, especially in times when you’re experiencing a particular set of emotions.
6. You can’t lose weight
You are overweight and know the steps to lose weight, but your emotions fuel the desire to eat high-calorie foods as “rewards” or to find comfort. This overrides your logical self from sticking to a diet or portion sizes that will enable healthy weight loss.
If any of the above points resonate with you and you’d like to understand if you’re eating because of your emotions, feel free to reach out for a connection call with me.
How can you tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger?
Telling the difference between emotional and physical hunger isn’t always easy. When you’re craving a big bowl of crisps or a gooey chocolate treat, it could be your body’s physical way of telling you you’ve not eaten for a while and it’s looking for something rich in carbohydrates.
Or, it could be a sign that you’re just bored and need to find a distraction.
When you find yourself craving something, ask yourself how physically hungry you really feel on a scale of 1-10.
Is your tummy rumbling? Do you have low energy? Are you feeling sad, anxious or stressed?
Take note of the foods you are choosing — Are they nutrient-dense or salty, sweet palatable foods?
Answering these questions will make you think twice before eating out of emotion and help you tune into your body. This is the first step in intuitive eating.
Helpguide offers a few great points on how to further distinguish the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. They mention how emotional hunger comes on quite suddenly as a response to an emotion, whereas physical hunger starts off slow and builds over time.
Is emotional eating an eating disorder?
While emotional eating could be a symptom of an eating disorder, such as binge eating, it isn’t always the same thing.
Centerfordiscovery states that emotional eating doesn’t necessarily fall into the eating disorders category as we know them to be. However, eating emotionally is a characteristic of disordered eating that can potentially lead to an eating disorder diagnosis.
Another question that I’m often asked is, “Am I emotionally eating or binge eating?”
And whilst there is not a clear answer to this, there are some strong differences between them, namely the quantity, speed and intensity at which you eat.
Binge eating is defined by amihungry as “Eating a significantly larger amount of food than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances. During a binge, a person feels out of control or feels that they can’t stop eating. Some describe it as a trance-like state.”
So you see how being an emotional eater could potentially lead to binge eating and, finally, an eating disorder diagnosis.
However, that doesn’t change how you should treat your body or work toward a healthier relationship with food. Rather than thinking about “having a disorder” or “learning how to stop emotional eating,” think about rebuilding your relationship with food and your emotions in a healthy way.
How to stop the emotional eating cycle
If you’re using food as a primary way to cope with your emotions, you are probably well-acquainted with the cycle.
You get an urge to eat then eat more than you should. After the initial rush of eating has worn off, you feel guilty. Then, ironically, the feeling of guilt has you looking for more food.
…and the emotional eating cycle repeats itself.
The good news is that I’m here to help you. You are not alone. And you certainly do not have to be in this cycle forever.
By working with an experienced coach, you will gain invaluable coping mechanisms to identify where you are in the cycle and find alternative, healthier ways to deal with your emotions and how you respond to them.
I’ve designed a program specifically to help people from all backgrounds overcome emotional eating. My program will help you:
- Identify whether it’s physical hunger or emotional hunger
- Know your emotional eating triggers
- Look at other ways to manage your emotions
- Accept your feelings and your emotions
- Love yourself and your body enough to practise healthy lifestyle habits
As someone who has overcome binge eating myself, I truly understand that this is an extremely tough process…
The cycle is vicious and it is not easy to do it on your own.
If you are looking for ways to overcome eating emotionally, working with an experienced coach through various methods of therapy could be the only way to move forward.
If you feel like you need more help, feel free to reach out to me. I’ll help you understand your emotions and your eating habits. During my free, 30-minute connection call, I offer a judgement-free space to listen to your concerns about emotional eating and seek a find a way forward toward food freedom.