Eating in Response to Emotion

How to Curb Emotional Eating

Inside Out, the 2016 Academy Award winning animated film, beautifully illustrated the extent to which our emotions – in this case, Joy, Anger, Sadness, and Fear personified – run the show for us each and every moment of the day. These emotions, and their many emotion friends (such as Jealousy, Worry, and Boredom to name a few), populate a normal, broad spectrum of emotions and – as seen in the film – each one serves a useful purpose.

Yet sometimes, our emotions can trigger problematic behavior – such as eating, ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol or drugs, or avoidance – or problematic thoughts, either of which can intensify the initial feeling and potentially create a tricky trap to escape.

Because the mind and body are connected, it makes sense that emotions also impact us physically.

Excitement or anxiety can lead to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Sadness can decrease appetite or, for some people, increase it. Anxiety can result in different forms of persistent gastrointestinal distress (e.g., nausea, diarrhea), and anger is sometimes associated with tension headaches or muscle tightness.

The relationship between emotions and mental or physical symptoms can be quite idiosyncratic. The connection between eating and emotions is well established, but may also manifest differently in different people. 

Understanding Eating in Response to Emotion

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Eating in response to emotion refers to any eating that occurs in response to negative emotion or mood. Some people describe eating when they are sad, frustrated, nervous, on edge, hopeless, or worn out. Eating when bored is also relatively commonplace. This type of eating that does not simply satisfy hunger and, in fact, may occur in the complete absence of hunger.

In contrast to physical hunger, emotional hunger tends to:

  • come on suddenly
  • involve strong, seemingly insatiable cravings
  • involve searching for a specific type of craving (typically carbs or sweets)
  • persist despite a full stomach
  • make a person feel bad – guilty, or ashamed

When emotional eating becomes a pattern, its impact can be far-reaching. Scientific studies on eating in response to emotion have shown that individuals who engage in this type of behavior are at risk for developing development of overeating and binge eating episodes and excessive weight gain. Conversely, decreased emotional eating in adults seeking behavioral weight loss treatment seems to help with successful weight loss.

Emotional eating is an equal opportunity problem, affecting men and women. Children also eat in response to emotion, and it is notable that some kids eat in response to all emotions – positive and negative – much the way some adults use food as a reward, overindulging when they feel particularly happy. Children and teens, ages 8 to 18, who endorse a higher degree of eating in response to emotions have also been shown to eat more in a laboratory meal study than their peers who report less emotional eating.

Emotional Eating, Binge Eating, and Anxiety

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Emotional eating and binge eating are distinct but related phenomena, two of several types of overeating. Remember, emotional eating is any eating that occurs in response to an emotion or mood—positive or negative. This could mean choosing to have an ice cream sundae instead of a one-scoop ice cream cone when you’re feeling depressed or celebrating an event. Or, snacking on a bag of pretzels mindlessly as you stress out while thinking about an upcoming meeting with your boss.

Eating in response to emotion can progress into a full-fledged binge eating episode. But for the eating experience to be considered a binge, it must involve (1) experiencing loss of control over eating (i.e., you feel unable to stop eating once you’ve begun) and (2) eating a large amount of food (i.e., most people would agree that the amount is big).

Recurrent binge eating episodes reflect a problem that would meet the threshold for an eating disorder diagnosis; in contrast, while recurrent emotional eating episodes may be distressing to the individual, and worthy of attention, they may not necessarily reflect a present diagnosable eating problem. If emotional eating is occurring in the context of an anxiety disorder (such as generalized anxiety disorder) or a mood problem (such as depression), it is likely to improve with treatment of those conditions.

There are two eating disorders characterized by binge eating episodes: binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. In the case of the former, binge eating occurs at least once per week for several months with absent compensatory actions to get rid of the calories ingested. With bulimia nervosa, binge eating is typically followed by some type of purging behavior. There is research that supports the link between negative emotional states and the onset of binge eating in people with both types of eating disorders.

Less is known about the link between anxiety and binge eating than low mood and binge eating. One theory about the relationship between the two posits that individuals with high sensitivity to anxiety eat as means of avoidance. This may be the case for emotional eating as well. Research has also shown that some people reduce anxiety after binge eating. Anxiety disorders can co-occur with binge eating disorder, with a lifetime prevalence rate of 37%. Typically, anxiety disorders precede the onset of an eating disorder.

Assessing Your Eating

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To determine whether or not emotional eating is a problem for you, consider your answers to the following:

  • How often do I eat when I’m not hungry? At those times, am I eating to silence or ignore uncomfortable feelings?
  • Do I frequently eat to give myself something to do when I’m bored?
  • How usual is it for me to overeat when I’m eating with other people because I feel anxious about joining the conversation or being judged, or because I otherwise feel self-conscious or badly about myself?
  • How much does my weight fluctuate in periods of intense stress and persistent negative emotions? Is this fluctuation weight gain? And if so, how significant is the increase?
  • True or false
    • When I come home from a long, stressful day at work, the first thing I do is open up the fridge, freezer, or pantry.
    • If I am feeling frustrated with my children, I am likely to eat more or “treat” myself to favorite food.
    • I would rather eat when I’m mad at my partner than talk about the conflict with him/her, so that’s what I tend to do.
    • If I’m feeling down, I like to eat on my own (i.e., away from others) until I feel better.

If your answers to the majority of the questions/statement above indicate that you default into emotional eating on a regular basis, then it’s worth doing a little self-monitoring as you go through a week to better assess the situation. Read more about the basics of keeping a food log, and learn about some smartphone apps that may simplify the process for you.

Tips to Curb Emotional Eating

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If your self-assessment reveals that you are doing more than your share of eating in response to emotion, there are several ways you can begin to work on changing this behavior.

1. Identify your cues. Use a food diary (like the food log described above) to track your emotional eating triggers over the course of several weeks. Take time to analyze the patterns you see, and problem-solve accordingly. For example, if you notice that you tend to eat due to anger at family gatherings when someone has said something offensive to you, come up with a game plan before your next visit home. Recruit your partner to lend an ear if you need to vent your frustration, or prepare what you might say to your family member (or even simply think to yourself) that would help you to feel better.

2. Find other outlets for the specific negative emotions that lead to eating. Once you do this, you can then practice expressing or relieving those emotions in healthier ways. Exercise can, for example, provide a release from anxiety and a boost for low mood. Calming breath work might take the edge off of anger or worry. Conversation with others, use of social media, or engaging mental activities (like crossword puzzles or trip planning) could combat boredom.

3. Accept that the unpleasant feelings will arise. It is unrealistic to imagine that positive emotions will dominate your emotional landscape. Learn to expect and accept your negative feelings, and get curious about what they might mean. To make your feelings more tolerable, learn how to move away from emotion myths and harsh self-judgment, and how to create some space between you and the beliefs that perpetuate the difficult feelings.

4. Maintain a regular eating pattern. As tempting as it might be to skip dinner after an afternoon of emotional snacking, this is actually quite likely to put you at risk for additional overeating. Instead, commit to eating three meals and a couple of snacks every single day, no exceptions. You can choose to have a ‘smaller’ or ‘lighter’ meal following an episode of emotional eating if you like, but pay attention to the impact this has on your intake for the remainder of that day.

5. Exercise patience. When you notice an emotional eating food craving coming on, try to monitor the strength of the craving for a few minutes…and then a few minutes more, perhaps before and after a distracting (non-eating) activity. Wait long enough and you are likely to see the craving peak and then decrease, all without you acting on it. Exercise patience with yourself throughout this process too because this is hard work and it’s going to take practice.

As you implement these strategies, take note also of the role that positive emotions play in your eating. Strive to create a non-food reward system for yourself across the board – this will help take eating ‘off the table,’ so to speak, as a way to soothe or treat yourself. Instead, let food be about nourishment.

For More Help…

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If you are having difficulty changing your eating behavior on your own, then it is time to get some help from the outside. Depending on your circumstance, this might involve treatment for an underlying anxiety or mood problem, or assess your eating problem with an eating disorder specialist (possibly a psychiatrist, psychologist, dietitian, or primary care physician).

To find a qualified clinician, check out referral resources including Psychology Today, The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, The Anxiety and Depression Association, or the Academy for Eating Disorders. Your primary care physician may be helpful in providing referrals for a psychiatric evaluation as well as local resources for low-fee treatment. 


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