Why do people indulge in emotional eating?

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Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics

Emotional eating is typically food that we eat in response to emotions/feelings. Often we might not even realize that we are doing this. Comfort foods might provide a temporary or short-term feeling of satisfaction during a stressful situation; however, it might also lead to overeating and weight gain. It is important to identify true physical hunger and triggers that set us off in terms of emotional eating. A registered dietitian can help you with this.

Paula Greer
Midwifery Nursing

People indulge in emotional eating to feel better. When we are stressed, lonely, or even bored we may experience a drop is some of our body’s chemical neurotransmitters and hormones. This drop may set off triggers in the brain that cause us to eat to take away that bad or uneasy feeling we are having. Unfortunately when we eat foods high in carbohydrates our levels go back up temporarily and we feel better for a very short time. After that our levels plummet again and we look for another quick fix like that piece of cake. This is why one piece of cake is never enough and if we are not careful as emotional eaters we find ourselves eating the whole cake. This craving was never about hunger. It's a different kind of fullness we are trying to achieve. Learning about how, why, and when we eat and preventing these chemical highs and lows is the first step in tackling emotional overeating.

Brad Lamm
Addiction Medicine

We have to make choices around food all the time, and those eating choices are almost always connected to a feeling that we don't want to feel, but instead, we eat through. To a great extent, we are all emotional eaters. It’s baked into our culture. Early on, we learn to associate food with love. When a baby cries, the first thing a parent offers is breast milk or some other food. Using food for comfort is a normal, healthy impulse. And when it’s only one of many ways you take care of yourself, eating something can be a very nice way to make yourself feel better.

But if you’re gaining weight because of it, or you can’t stop eating certain foods, or eating is taking the place of building closer connections with the people in your life, it’s a sign that something is wrong. Eating might be (and often is) an escape from uncomfortable emotions or a conflicting feeling.

For emotional eaters, food is closely linked to how you feel. Happiness is celebrated with food; and when things are going wrong, you console yourself with food. The problem here is that emotional eating never solves your problem. It just creates another one, with food.

Many times as children we are taught that food is attached to emotions. If we've grown up in this kind of an environment as adults we will continue to think that food is attached to emotions and eat to deal with those emotions. Emotional eating is a coping mechanism. It's a way to deal with something that seems either out of your control or something that you don't have a better option for dealing with. For example, if you are working late at night and something stressful occurs this stress might feel out of your control and you might not realize that you have other options for dealing with it besides food. First, think about what part of this stressful situation is in your control and then come up with a list of options of ways to deal with that stress other than food. Other options include: listening to music, writing, reading, cooking, etc.

It helps to keep a journal of times you eat emotionally. Being able to pinpoint situations and emotions can help you to come up with alternative solutions for dealing with those situations and can help you to be prepared. For example, if you find you eat emotionally late nights because of stressful work situations come up with an alternative that you really like and that is easily accessible. Place a sticky note on your computer that has a cue word to cue you in the direction you want to go: 'write' or 'listen to music'. Also try to not bring your emotional eating food to your computer. If you have to get up and go to the kitchen it becomes more difficult and gives you more time to think about what the right action is. It doesn't hurt to have sticky notes all the way to your kitchen from your computer. 

Emotional eating is an emotional pattern that needs to be broken. It's helpful to realize you have some control in these situations and also helpful to come up with alternatives to food.  
Kelly Traver
Internal Medicine

Emotional eating is extremely common among both men and women. Most people engage in it at least occasionally. Some people do it when they feel stressed or frustrated. Others do it when they are bored, sad, tired, or lonely. The truth is that food can help you feel better. It can calm you down when you feel stressed, and it can lift your mood. Unfortunately, it can also cause you to gain weight.

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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.