Learn what emotional eating is and how to overcome it.
Have you ever casually told somebody that you were going to go “eat your feelings”? Have you come home late from work and ended up eating something entirely different from what you planned to have for dinner? Or maybe you have a ritual involving your favorite TV show and cookies, ice cream, or potato chips?
Feelings and eating are closely connected for virtually all of us. Sometimes our emotions aren’t the byproduct of eating, but the driving force behind it. In this article, you’ll learn about the definition and scientific background of this behavior, called emotional eating, as well as what you can do to overcome emotional eating.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is when we eat as a response to experiencing negative emotions or stress (Arnow et al., 1994). Eating food when we feel bad – especially foods that are highly rewarding and satisfying, such as those high in fat or sugar – gives us temporary relief from the negative emotions we’re experiencing.
We can identify whether emotional eating is happening by paying attention to the emotional context of our eating. Any situation that involves negative emotions could trigger somebody to emotionally eat. This is because two common strategies we use to deal with negative feelings – strategies that are more common in people who emotionally eat (Spoor et al., 2007) – are trying to cope with the emotion directly or avoiding the emotion altogether. In other words, we emotionally eat to head off a bad feeling that’s coming down the road or deal with one that’s already here.
Emotional eating is also more common in people who have trouble identifying their feelings, regulating their emotions, and who are highly susceptible to getting stressed out (van Strien, 2018). One study found some gender differences in the likelihood of emotional eating: women were more likely to emotionally eat when stressed out, while men were more likely to emotionally eat when bored or anxious (Bennett et al., 2012).
But, emotional eating is not an official disorder you can find in a medical volume such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the DSM). However, it functions in a similar way to “traditional” eating disorders such as binge-eating disorder (BED). Researchers have found that many people with BED also are emotional eaters, but not all of them. And the reverse is true as well: most emotional eaters do not have a diagnosed eating disorder (Lindeman & Stark, 2001).
While emotional eating isn’t a disorder, people who emotionally eat are more likely to be overweight or obese (Frayn & Knauper, 2017). They are also at greater risk of becoming someone who binge eats than are people who don’t emotionally eat (Arnow et al., 1994; Ricca et al., 2009).
How to Stop Emotional Eating
The following are some science-based steps to reducing your emotional eating.
1) Get in touch with your hunger signals. Some people may emotionally eat because they are not aware of the signals that their body is actually hungry (Tan & Chow, 2014). For example, some people may misinterpret their body’s reaction to stress as a signal that they need to eat. Or, you may have difficulty noticing signs that you have eaten enough, which will make it harder to recognize emotional eating as unnecessary.
2) Get suspicious of your impulse to eat. First, a caveat: this is not a recommendation that you second-guess every thought about food you have. However, it is clear that people who emotionally eat may not recognize the link between their emotional state and their urge to eat (Kemp & Kopp, 2011). So my advice is simple: the next time you’re hungry and it’s not a mealtime, get curious: what else am I experiencing right now? Are there feelings I’m having but not really acknowledging? If I ate something, would that feeling go away?
3) Minimize temptation. You’ve probably never heard anybody complain that they went overboard on mindlessly eating kale, have you? The foods that most of us crave when we emotionally eat are tempting for good reason: they deliver a quick, powerful rush of satisfaction (Ganley, 1989). If you want to reduce the likelihood that you will emotionally eat, you may need to remove some of the chief suspects – your favorite snack foods – from your home, your office, or even your car.
All of us have likely engaged in emotional eating at some point. Food is so effective at changing our moods and so easy to access that it’s almost inevitable. Thankfully, this is a behavioral pattern that we can recognize and change. Each time you catch yourself emotionally eating is an opportunity to learn something about yourself. What emotions are hard for you to handle? What other coping skills would you like to strengthen? With time and effort, you may see changes that go beyond your eating habits or your waistline.
Arnow, B., Kenardy, J., & Agras, W. S. (1994). The Emotional Eating Scale: the development of a measure to assess coping with negative affect by eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(1), 79-90.
Bennett, J., Greene, G., & Schwartz-Barcott, D. (2013). Perceptions of emotional eating behavior: a qualitative study of college students. Appetite, 60, 187-192.
Frayn, M., & Knauper, B. (2017). Emotional eating and weight in adults: a review. Current Psychology, 37, 924-933.
Ganley, R. M. (1989). Emotion and eating in obesity: a review of the literature. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 8, 343-361.
Kemp, E., & Kopp, S. W. (2011). Emotion regulation consumption: when feeling better is the aim. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 10(1), 1-7.
Lindeman, M., & Stark, K. (2001). Emotional eating and eating disorder psychopathology. Eating Disorders, 9, 251-259.
Ricca, V., Castellini, G., Lo Sauro, C., Ravaldi, C., Lapi, F., … , & Faravelli, C. (2009). Correlations between binge eating and emotional eating in a sample of overweight subjects. Appetite, 53(3), 418-421.
Spoor, S. T. P., Bekker, M. H. J., van Strien, T., & van Heck, G. L. (2007). Relations between negative affect, coping, and emotional eating. Appetite, 48(3), 368-376.
Tan, C. C., & Chow, C. M. (2014). Stress and emotional eating: the mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personality and Individual Differences, 66, 1-4.