What is emotional eating?

Laura Katleman-Prue
Nutrition & Dietetics
Emotional eating is eating without being completely aware that you're eating. Instead, you're thinking and feeling -- and feeding your feelings with -- stressful thoughts while semi-consciously shoveling down copious quantities of food, perhaps without even tasting it. If this has been your habit, the compulsion to eat feels so strong that it seems physical. The strength of the compulsion is actually due to the countless times you've reinforced it by reaching for food to soothe uncomfortable emotions. But fear not! It's possible to interrupt this pattern.
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Abby Ellin
Nutrition & Dietetics
“Compulsive eating is for the most part eating that’s done not in response to physical hunger but in response to a craving,” says Dr. Sharon K. Farber, who has been treating children, adolescents, and adults with eating problems for over thirty years. She runs eating-disorder support groups in her practice in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. “Or it’s a way of distracting oneself from some unpleasant feelings that are starting to emerge--sadness, anger, or a
sense of loss or anxiety. Often, many people associate an empty stomach with feeling empty and sad inside, and to them the solution is to fill the emptiness very literally with comfort and food. You can call it emotional eating--eating for emotional reasons unrelated to physical hunger.

“Every obese person I’ve ever known, personally or professionally, eats a whole lot more than they think they do, often when they’re not even aware that they’re eating,” she adds. “They’re around food and they grab it and it doesn’t even register in their brain that, ‘Hey, I just ate three cookies.’”

Farber’s goal is to teach people to develop a different relationship with food, so they can tolerate their emotions and don’t have to self-medicate with food. “Eating can serve a self-soothing function to regulate anxiety, and also a defense,” she says. 
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Pavel Somov, Ph.D.

Psychologist/Author of Eating the Moment, Present Perfect, Lotus Effect

Good reasons why emotional eating is so appealing as a coping strategy.

  • Eating is oral coping:  From day one, feeding has been a default parenting intervention and the pacifier has been our first coping tool. 
  •  Feeding is caring:Many cultures explicitly equate feeding with caring.  Remember grandma's home-baked chocolate cookies after a hard day at school?
  •  Meal time is support time. Family meals are a family ritual, and at their best are a time of togetherness, an opportunity for social relating and belonging and as a means to emotional well-being. 
  • Eating is grounding. Eating is a ritual, and as such, it's comforting in its predictability. 

Leveraging More Coping Per Calorie

  1. Accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure. 
  2. When eating to cope, have an appetizer of relaxation first. Take a few moments to notice your breath and smell your food.
  3. Follow a predictable eating ritual, with clear starting and ending points. Begin with breathing, focus on your food throughout your meal and end with a healthy dose of self-acceptance. 
  4. Use pattern-interruption techniques to keep your mind aware, guessing, present and focused during the mindful emotional eating episode. 
  5. If you want to binge or "veg out," to regress into a bit of mindless "hand-to-mouth" trance then consider a harm-reduction strategy: mindfully choose what you will mindlessly eat. 
  6. Know your comfort foods. Allow yourself to have exactly the experience of pleasure that you seek.   
  7. Indulge on quality, not quantity. So, as you purchase your comfort foods, pay the premium price, get the top-shelf foodstuffs. This additional financial investment will likely intrigue your tongue and help you slow down to mindfully notice this moment of self-care. 
  8. When you eat to cope, just eat. The suggestion of "eating when you eat" is the backbone of all mindful eating know how. It is particularly important when it comes to mindful emotional eating. When you sit down to eat to cope, turn off the TV, put the reading aside. Or risk missing out on the very self-care moment you have so courageously allowed yourself to have. So, when you eat to cope, then just cope. If food is your therapist at this moment, then you have to show up for this session with yourself.  
Wendy Batts
At its simplest, emotional eating is an eating behavior that is driven by an emotion, positive or negative. We all eat for a bunch of reasons: to celebrate, when we’re stressed, angry, sad, bored, etc. However, emotional eating often leads to far too many calories being consumed.

Eating can be soothing and often a source of comfort and/or distraction. We often hear of emotional eating as something that is at the root of a lot of overeating. Emotional triggers to overeating must be dealt with before many weight issues can be addressed and healthy habits built. Consult your healthcare provider or qualified counselor ASAP if you feel emotional eating may be at the root of your eating problems.
Judi Hollis
Health Education

Watch as Dr. Judi Hollis discusses emotional eating.

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
By definition, comfort foods make us feel good, can lift a bad mood, and plain and simple be a form of stress relief.

The emotional factor often provides the undercurrent to appetite. Our behavior around food is also intimately connected to deep emotional requirements such as the innate needs to feel happy and satisfied. What we crave or use for comfort can be rooted in our eating patterns, which have profound psychological significance. This helps explain why you might go to the kitchen when you're unhappy, bored, stressed out, or sad and eat the leftover birthday cake rather than reaching for an apple.

Likewise, when you're feeling insecure, you might eat a pastry mindlessly while on the phone with a friend. Or, as you say to yourself, "I am not going to feel sad; I am going to make the kids' lunches," you might then find yourself nibbling on the same treats you include in their bags as you assemble them. The other factor to consider is the circumstances -- the context of the eating. You may be emotional, for instance, and then you enter the kitchen. The food is there and your mind goes to places that ultimately result in an override of your body's physiologic cues of true hunger, or lack thereof. Suddenly, your body's fullness gets rebooted and you find room for food no matter what.
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Paula Greer
Midwifery Nursing

Emotional eating is the same thing as being a stress eater. I have been a stress eater for years. When we are eating emotionally we are eating to feel better not because we are hungry or our body needs calories. Emotional or stress eating becomes a habit or learned behavior that often goes all the way back to childhood. I was always that very short girl that people made fun of or didn’t want on their basketball team in gym class. My grandmother use to try to make me feel better after a rough day of bullying at school by feeding me cookies. Unfortunately this carried over into my adult years. Eating certain comfort foods make you feel better, sometimes because we associate those loving feelings with memories and foods. Other times because certain foods actually release chemicals that appeal to the addictions portion of our brain and actually temporarily make us feel better. The same centers of the brain that respond to heroin addiction also respond to sugar. This part of the brain causes us to crave our comfort foods when we are emotionally stressed. Some of us seek alcohol, cigarettes or even drugs to make this part of the brain satisfied while others of us seek food. This behavior can be overcome with new behaviors and new stress coping mechanisms. Taking deep breaths, taking a walk, getting a massage, substituting healthy snacks, calling a friend are all healthier ways to change the emotional response to eating.

Marisa Moore
Nutrition & Dietetics

Emotional eating can be defined as eating in response to negative feelings or situations. It involves using food to cope with your emotions. Most of the time you are not physically hungry.

The classic vision of an emotional eater is the person up at midnight bingeing on rocky road ice cream. Well that could be the case but you don't have to binge or be out of control to experience emotional eating. You may cook your favorite comfort food or reach for the chips when you are stressed, boredom, sad or feeling lonely. No matter how emotional eating manifests in your life, it is possible to control it for a healthier life overall.

Joel H. Fuhrman, MD
Family Medicine
People often overeat for emotional comfort. It can bring fleeting pleasure. Food can be a druglike outlet to dull the pain and dissatisfaction of life, but, like drug or alcohol use, it is never a good long-term solution. It only winds up complicating things further. What people of all body weights really want is to feel proud of themselves. This cannot be achieved by overeating and eating unhealthily. Packing on additional pounds leads to more guilt and self-hate and, subsequently, more overeating to dull the pain.
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Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics

Emotional eating is when we eat in response to emotions/feelings such as sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, stress, happiness, etc. instead of in response to actual physical hunger. 75% of overeating occurs due to emotional eating. The key is to identify triggers that lead to emotional eating and find ways to handle these situations differently so that you can have a healthy relationship with food. A registered dietitian can help.

Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics
Emotional eating is eating in response to something other than hunger. Often times people eat out of stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and happiness. There are so many situations that revolve around food but we are not always hungry at those times. People eat out of pressure to be social. They feel it is rude not to eat when someone has gone to the trouble and/or expense of preparing food. Emotional eating can lead to overweight and obesity. In order to stop emotional eating, up you have to first learn to distinguish hunger. Once you can identify when you are truly hungry, you can examine the other reasons that cause you to eat.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.