Emotional Eating: Causes And How To Stop It
By: Julie Mancuso, founder of JM Nutrition, nutritional counselling service by a team of nutritional practitioners, and Registered Dietitian, Nataly Georgieva.
In this post:
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating causes
How to stop emotional eating
What is emotional eating? What causes emotional eating? How to stop emotional eating? Do I have disordered eating?
In recent years more and more people have been seeking answers to these questions, when looking to enlist the help of our nutritional counselling services.
As a result, we decided it was time to take a look at each question in some detail.
What is emotional eating?
In short, emotional eating is eating for reasons other than hunger.
In other words, emotional eating occurs when food is used to suppress negative emotions such as sadness, guilt, frustration, anxiety, anger, stress, loneliness or fear. These negative feelings are often caused by major life events such as a break-up or divorce, or other relationship troubles.
They can also be caused by troubles at work or significant financial problems.
Any challenges, hardships or struggles in life are possible triggers of ‘emotional eating’.
Emotional eating does not always have a negative association
Believe it or not, emotional eating can also occur when feeling happy.
For instance, eating is tied to your emotions when we use food as a reward for achieving a promotion at work or receiving a good grade at school.
It also occurs in social situations such as weddings or when going out to eat with friends, where social pressures can cause you to ’emotionally eat’.
Last, emotional eating takes place when feeling bored. How many times have you reached for a chocolate bar just because it is there? And how many times have you grabbed a bag of potato chips or some popcorn while watching a movie?
Perhaps you made that reach because you simply had nothing else to do. Maybe eating chips while watching your favourite movie or tv show just feels great. Whichever is the case, you simply eat for reasons other than hunger, and the trigger behind these bouts of eating is related to your emotions.
JM Nutrition’s own Registered Dietitian, Nataly Georgieva, who works with disordered eating clients, says it’s important to keep this point in mind: “While emotional eating is normal, it may potentially be harmful when it is the only coping mechanism that we have for dealing with difficult emotions, or if we end up feeling guilty afterwards.”
Emotional eating causes
So what are the causes of emotional eating?
Certainly, emotional eating causes are many and varied. In addition, they are both psychological and physiological.
Since emotional eating involves the tendency to eat for reasons other than hunger, sufferers often crave foods that are high in calories, high in carbohydrates and also have minimal nutritional value. In addition, these foods typically consist of three highly-palatable ingredients: sugar, salt and fat.
1. Emotional eating is more complicated than just satisfying physical hunger
What’s more, the foods that ‘emotional eaters’ consume are not used for sustenance and the acquisition of nutrients.
Instead, these “comfort” foods are eaten to fill an emotional hunger, a void of some sort. According to MedicineNet.com, emotional eaters crave foods such as ice cream, cookies, chocolate, chips, French fries, and pizza–all highly-palatable foods that provide a quick feel-good factor.
Growing levels of stress in our daily lives create a deep need for relaxation and indulgence. At times, a sugary, salty and/or high-fat snack can provide instant, albeit short-lived, relief.
3. Food addiction
Addiction to certain foods is certainly one of the causes of emotional eating.
When you eat highly-palatable, feel-good foods, endorphins are released into the body, resulting in a feeling of pleasure. Repeatedly seeking to reproduce this pleasant effect can swiftly lead to food addiction.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, recent research suggests that “foods, particularly highly palatable and energy-dense ones, may be “addictive” in ways similar to drugs of abuse. These findings have consequently led to the conceptualization of ‘food as drugs’.”
The same article goes on to say that both “food and drugs exploit similar pathways in the brain. Increased drug taking and high-fat diets increase sensitization of reward pathways, which in turn influences preference for addictive substance and hyper-palatable foods and increases craving and intake.”
Learn more about dietitians for binge eating management
Related: Ozempic pros and cons
4. Mental health
There is no doubt mental health and nutrition are interlinked. Mental health plays an enormous role in our daily decision-making–food choices included.
Depression, anxiety and anger are all interlinked with overindulgences in unhealthy foods.
Dealing with mental health issues can be challenging and prolonged, so many people turn to food for the feel-good factor that it provides, at least in the short-term.
Unfortunately, doing so is simply a remedy with short-lived effect. It is, therefore, important to deal with the root cause of the issue by seeking appropriate help.
5. Sense of control
Psychologically, people associate food with comfort and stability. Food is also something within people’s control. So even though your life may be spiralling out of control, what food you eat, when you eat and how much you eat are all within strict control. This can be a powerful source of comfort and stability to those who lack such things in their daily lives.
In these cases, food is used to fill an emotional void, an emptiness despite the fact that physically the said person is full and no longer needs food as sustenance.
As a result, food is no longer only seen as a way to obtain nutrients and to stop hunger. Rather, it is now deeply connected to the emotions you feel. When a major life event, challenge or struggle occurs in your life, it triggers emotions: sadness, guilt, frustration, anger and so on. The reach for that food is a reach for comfort, stability and a sense of control.
6. Food can be a distraction
For many, food also serves as a distraction.
For example, if you’re facing a problem in a relationship with a loved one or if you’re worried about an upcoming exam, food can be used as a vehicle to take your mind off those matters through indulgence and the accompanying feel-good factor.
7. Food and positive emotions
As alluded to earlier, food can also be used when feeling positive emotions.
It can serve as a reward for a job well done at work, or a difficult task accomplished. These behaviours are often learned in childhood and carried through adolescence and adulthood.
For example, a baby cries when hungry or dissatisfied and gets fed, changed, played with, and comforted by, a parent or guardian in response to the cry.
Later, in adolescence, you may receive a reprimand and not be allowed to have dessert after supper, when you do something perceived as bad. Conversely, you may be rewarded with a treat for doing something well.
How many times have your parents or guardians rewarded a high mark on a test with a trip to Dairy Queen or McDonald’s?
Associating food with a job well done is a dangerous form of operant conditioning. According to Simply Psychology, operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour.
Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence (Skinner, 1938). Food can come to be associated as comfort and therefore a go-to when feeling yourself in need of some comfort. As pioneered by the work of B.F. Skinner, positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding.
8. Emotional eating and ads
Moreover, emotional eating has been conditioned by our TV viewing habits, particularly by ads.
That is, advertising has been instrumental in the positive association we develop with highly palatable but unhealthy foods. Such chronic exposure certainly shapes our thinking.
As a result, many of us adopt the expected behaviour portrayed in these ads.
Whatever the reason you emotionally eat, the end result is often the same. The solution is always only temporary and at the end of it all, you will only add on another emotion, and that is guilt over what and how much you have eaten. This could end up throwing you into a vicious cycle that gets endlessly repeated, potentially harming your health and causing weight gain.
How to stop emotional eating
So what can you do to get back on track if you’re an emotional eater struggling to come to grips with the problem. What can you do to stop emotional eating?
Ultimately, this journey begins with learning healthier ways to view food and develop healthier eating patterns, as well as identifying the triggers for emotional eating.
So what are some of the specific things you can do to stop emotional eating?
1. Identify the trigger
What is causing you to emotionally eat? A good way to identify patterns in eating is to start a food and mood journal. Every time you eat, record what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how hungry you are and also what emotions you are feeling prior to eating.
Furthermore, ask yourself, am I really hungry? Why do I want that chocolate bar?
Over time, doing so can help you to identify patterns in your eating. It can help to identify specific situations or emotions that trigger your emotional eating. To solve the problem or stop emotional eating, you need to know the full scope of it.
According to Registered Dietitian, Nataly Georgieva, “triggers are very personal to each individual and can be emotional or behavioural. Only after recognizing the trigger can alternative coping mechanisms then be put into place so that needs can be met without the use of food.”
2. Distinguish between craving and hunger
Knowing the difference between craving and hunger can contribute to greater self-awareness.
- mental response to a situation
- involves immediate satisfaction followed by guilt
- only certain foods will satisfy
- physiological response to a need
- involves replenishment and satiety followed by satisfaction
- any food will satisfy
3. Be mindful
Many experts agree that the key to managing your emotional bond with food is mindfulness. In other words, it’s important to be mindful of what you are eating and how much of it you are eating.
What does it mean to be mindful?
To be mindful is to be conscious of what is happening and why it is happening.
How to be mindful to stop emotional eating
- Take a few minutes prior to eating and ask yourself “Am I really hungry or am I just craving?”, “Is my stomach growling?”.
- When eating, eat slowly and without distraction.
- Take the time to enjoy your food and actually taste it.
- Actually focus on your food. Focus on eating it.
- Make sure to chew your food properly and not just inhale it.
- Last, it’s important to learn to eat until you are no longer hungry, rather than stopping only when you’re full.
4. Prep and plan your meals
Planning and prepping meals can be helpful, too. Doing so can prevent you from making a dash for the most readily accessible comfort food, furthering fuelling guilt.
Take a look at this meal prepping guide that contains 32 tips and strategies.
Related: Do Meal Plans Work?
5. Follow the path of most resistance
Empty your house of unhealthy food and snacks or, if you must have them in the house, make them harder to access.
As humans, we tend to follow the path of least resistance, so make the principle work for you: use the path of most resistance.
If you have junk food at an arm’s length, then it will be much easier to resort to these easy, convenience foods in times of stress. This way the next time you feel the urge to reach for a box of cookies or a bag of potato chips, then you will have to walk or drive all the way to the store in order to get it. This extra effort will eliminate many slip-ups.
6. Find healthier ways to cope with life’s stresses
Stress and emotional eating are closely connected. What’s more, stress often influences our food choices.
Sometimes the only way to escape life’s stresses is to reach for an unhealthy but delicious snack, receiving immediate relief by its feel-good factor.
For the reason described above it’s important to choose alternative ways to reduce stress.
Go out for a walk, a run or join a fitness class.
Play with your dog or cat. According to Science Daily, animals have been shown to reduce stress in people.
Another way to relieve stress is to do something you enjoy: a hobby. Read a good book, listen to some relaxing music, do some crafts, sew or knit, play some solitaire–anything.
7. Gather support
According to psycom.net, “a network of family friends, including professional help in the form of a therapist or coach, if necessary, can be as important to your success as your own motivation or efforts.”
People who have strong social support systems are less stressed than those without these social supports, according to MedicineNet.
If you are feeling anxious, angry, sad or just stressed in general, talk to someone you can trust and confide in. Just having someone to talk to can relieve a great deal of anxiety.
8. Try meditation, yoga or breathing exercises
These are no doubt time-tested ways to relieve anxiety and stress and, in turn, help manage or stop emotional eating.
YouTube has some excellent meditation, yoga and breathing exercise videos available from a multitude of hosts.
9. Seek professional help
If you have tried the previously suggested methods and still find yourself emotionally eating, then it may be time to find some professional help.
Professional help comes in many forms: counsellor, therapist, a life coach, a dietitian or nutritionist. These professionals can look for signs of disordered eating patterns, which can be connected to your emotional eating. Frequently, these professionals work in conjunction with one another to help those struggling with emotional eating.
What is disordered eating?
The term disordered eating, however, encompasses far more than these few conditions covered in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition).
Disordered eating includes those conditions that do not fully meet the criteria of an eating disorder. It is a difference of degree or severity.
For example, someone may binge and then purge, but not often enough to be considered Bulimic. They may diet, but not to the extent of someone suffering from Anorexia.
Regardless of degree, “these below-threshold conditions can lead to significant distress, impacting a person’s overall health and quality of life”, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Emotional eating and disordered eating
While emotional eating can be a component of disordered eating, it is only a partial component. There may be other issues involved that require professional help.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, disordered eating may have a variety of symptoms and are akin to symptoms of full-blown eating disorders.
Disordered eating symptoms may include:
- significant fluctuations in weight
- stomach disturbances
- changes in bowel habits
- changes in menstrual regularity
- feeling dizzy or weak
- being preoccupied with food
- frequent dieting (or yo-yo dieting)
- extreme fasting
- excessive concern with own weight or weight loss Related: Working with dietitian and nutritionist for weight loss
- worry about consuming too many calories
- unhealthy preoccupation with body image, body size/shape
- significantly limiting or restricting certain foods or food groups
Irrespective of symptoms, disordered eating can be detrimental to your health, and as such, help should be sought quickly. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the chances of management and recovery.
Emotional eating can be a complicated matter. Most likely, it is something that has grown up with you or stayed by your side most of your life. As such, it can be difficult to cope with. But rest assured help is out there. With sustained professional help, the hurdle of emotional eating can be managed, if not overcome altogether. If you require assistance in this area, or any other, you can contact us for an appointment or book a free consultation with a dietitian and nutritionist. We offer in-person appointments at select locations and online dietitian services.
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JM Nutrition is a Toronto nutritional counselling service by dietitians and nutritionists with several locations in Canada.