Why You Binge When You're Not Hungry

Eating food at restaurant
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While new research on nutrition seems to come out every day and low carb diet books top the bestseller lists, many people continue to struggle with maintaining a nutritious diet and staying fit. This is because, even if we know what we’re supposed to be eating, there are additional factors that influence how much and what type of food we consume.

One of these factors is stress, which is linked to increased emotional eating. Emotional eating has many causes. The following are some of the main reasons that people with stress eat:

Cortisol Cravings

Stress can bring on increased levels of cortisol, known as "the stress hormone." Cortisol has a beneficial function in the body, but excessive levels of cortisol brought on by chronic stress can cause a slew of problems in the body. Among other things, high levels of cortisol can create cravings for salty and sweet, fatty, or processed foods.

In previous centuries, this enabled people to bulk up on foods that would sustain them during times when food is scarce. However, in modern times and industrialized nations, when food is rarely scarce, this previously adaptive mechanism causes excess weight gain.

Social Eating

Often people who are under stress will seek out social support, which is a great way to relieve stress. Unfortunately for those who diet, when people get together—especially women—we tend to go out for a nice meal.

It is okay to participate in social eating, but when we are experiencing stress we tend to choose less healthy foods. Crying on your friend’s shoulder over a couple of hot fudge sundaes, going out for a night on the town and a plate full of fried appetizers, sharing a bowl of chips with the guys as you watch a game, or discussing the gory details of a nightmare date over cheesecake with your roommates are all social forms of emotional eating.

This is okay as long as you made the conscious decision to eat what you are eating. It becomes problematic when you are reacting to the emotion, impulsively, which then typically leads to feelings of guilt and regret.

Nervous Energy

When stressed or anxious, many people become "orally fidgety." Sometimes this leads to nail-biting or teeth grinding, and often it leads to mindless eating or eating when not hungry. Many people, out of nervousness or boredom, graze or just munch on chips or drink soda to give their mouths something to do.

Childhood Habits

Many of us have comforting childhood memories that revolve around food. Whether your parents used to reward you with sweets, fix your boo-boos with an ice cream cone, or make your favorite meal (or take you out to one) to celebrate your successes, you’d probably be in the vast minority if you didn’t develop some emotionally-based attachments to food while growing up.

When in times of stress, few things can be as powerfully comforting or rewarding as your favorite food. Because many people don’t develop more effective coping strategies, this type of emotional eating is very common: people eat to celebrate, eat to feel better, eat to deal with the stress of being overweight.

Stuffing Emotions

Another emotional reason that many people eat is to quiet uncomfortable emotions. People who are uncomfortable with confrontation may deal with frustrations in their marriage with a piece of cake, for example, rather than with open communication. Food can take the focus off of anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, and a host of other emotions we’d sometimes rather not feel, and is often used for this purpose.

A Word From Verywell

While there are many reasons for emotional eating, and it’s a prevalent fixture in our society, it’s not necessarily good for us, as anyone who’s watching their weight will tell you.

"Emotional eating is not necessarily bad; it is okay to occasionally eat to cope with emotions," says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a licensed psychologist specializing in health and wellness, "but when this is your go-to behavior when you are feeling emotional, or when this is your only coping mechanism, it can then be problematic."

If you’re an emotional eater, it’s important for you to keep an eye on your triggers, and develop some effective stress management techniques and coping skills, so that your body stays healthy and you choose foods that make you feel good rather than feeling out of control.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.