Emotional Eating

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Binge Eating Disorder Signs

Emotional eating facts

  • Emotional eating is responding to feelings such as stress by eating high-carbohydrate, high-calorie foods with low nutritional value.
  • The quantity of food that is consumed is the primary difference between emotional eating and binge eating.
  • Like most emotional symptoms, emotional eating is thought to result from a number of factors rather than a single cause.
  • There are a number of potential warning signs for emotional eating, or stress eating.
  • Health professionals assess emotional eating by screening for physical and mental health issues.
  • Overcoming emotional eating involves teaching the individual healthier ways to view food and develop better eating habits (such as mindful eating), recognize their triggers for engaging in this behavior, and develop other more appropriate ways to prevent and alleviate stress.
  • When untreated, emotional overeating can cause obesity, problems with weight loss, and even lead to food addiction.
  • Reducing stress, using food as sustenance rather than as a way to solve problems, and using constructive ways to handle emotions can help to prevent emotional eating.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is the tendency of its sufferers to respond to stressful, difficult feelings by eating, even when not experiencing physical hunger. Emotional eating or emotional hunger is often a craving for high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods that have minimal nutritional value. The foods that emotional eaters crave are often referred to as comfort foods, like ice cream, cookies, chocolate, chips, French fries, and pizza. About 40% of people tend to eat more when stressed, while about 40% eat less and 20% experience no change in the amount of food they eat when exposed to stress. Consequently, stress can be associated with both weight gain and weight loss.

While emotional eating can be a symptom of what mental health professionals call atypical depression, many people who do not have clinical depression or any other mental health issue engage in this behavior in response to momentary feelings or chronic stress. This behavior is highly common and is significant since it can interfere with maintaining a healthy diet and contribute to obesity.

Quick GuideEating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating

Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating
Cortisol is secreted when a person feels stressed, and this hormone promotes weight gain.

Can Stress Make You Fat?

Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

Cortisol has been termed the "stress hormone" because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress, and the normal pattern of cortisol secretion (with levels highest in the early morning and lowest at night) can be altered. This disruption of cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight in the body. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as "toxic fat" since abdominal fat deposition is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.

What is the difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

The primary difference between emotional eating and binge eating involves the amount of food that is consumed. While both may involve a sense of trouble controlling a craving for food, emotional eating may involve consuming from moderate to great amounts of food and may be the only symptom that a person has or be part of an emotional illness like depression, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is a distinctive mental illness that is characterized by recurrent episodes of compulsive overeating, in that affected people uncontrollably eat an amount of food that is significantly larger than that which most people eat in a distinct period of time (for example, over two hours), even when they are not hungry. The person with binge eating disorder may eat each much faster than normal, conceal the amount they eat out of shame, and may feel disgusted by their eating after doing so. In order to qualify for this diagnosis, the binges must occur an average of once per week over three months.

What are causes, triggers, or risk factors for emotional eating?

Like most emotional symptoms, emotional eating is thought to be the result of a number of factors rather than one single cause. Some research is consistent with girls and women being at higher risk for eating disorders, showing they are at higher risk for emotional eating. However, other research indicates that in some populations, men are more likely to eat in response to feeling depression or anger, and women were more likely to eat excessively in response to failing a diet.

It is thought that the increase in the hormone cortisol that is one of the body's responses to stress is similar to the medication prednisone in its effects. Specifically, both tend to trigger the body's stress (fight or flight) response, including increased heart and breathing rate, blood flow to muscles, and visual acuity. Part of the stress response often includes increased appetite to supply the body with the fuel it needs to fight or flee, resulting in cravings for so-called comfort foods. People who have been subjected to chronic rather than momentary stress (like job, school, or family stress, exposure to crime or abuse) are at risk for having chronically high levels of cortisol in their bodies, contributing to developing chronic emotional-eating patterns.

Psychologically, people who tend to connect food with comfort, power, positive feelings, or for any other reasons than providing fuel to their body can be prone to emotional eating. They may eat to fill an emotional void, when physically full, and engage in mindless eating. Some people whose emotions cause them to eat may have been raised to connect food with feelings instead of sustenance, particularly if food was scarce or often used a reward or punishment, or as a substitute for emotional intimacy.

What are warning signs of emotional eating?

Warning signs for emotional eating include a tendency to feel hunger intensely and all of a sudden, rather than gradually as occurs with a true physical need to eat that is caused by an empty stomach. Emotional eaters tend to crave junk foods rather than seeking to eat balanced meals, and the urge to eat is usually preceded by stress or an uncomfortable emotion of some kind, like boredom, sadness, anger, guilt, or frustration. Other hallmarks of emotional eating are that the sufferer may feel a lack of control while eating and often feels guilty for what they have eaten.

What kind of specialists treat emotional eating?

A number of different health care professionals evaluate and treat emotional eating and may also help with weight loss when this contributes to overweight or obesity. As this symptom can occur at nearly anytime across the life span, everyone from pediatricians, family practitioners, and other primary care physicians may address this problem. Nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants may be involved in caring for emotional-eating sufferers. Mental health professionals who are often involved in assessing and treating this issue include psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers, and licensed counselors. While any one of these practitioners may care for people who engage in emotional eating, more than one may work together to help the person overcome this symptom.

How do health care providers diagnose emotional eating?

The diagnosis of emotional eating is made after first ensuring that the sufferer has had a physical examination and lab work to be certain that the symptom is not part of some genetic or other medical condition like Prader-Willi syndrome. As part of the mental health aspect of the examination, the patient may be asked a series of questions from a standardized questionnaire or self-test to help assess the presence of emotional eating. Thorough exploration of any history of mental health symptoms will be conducted such that emotional eating can be distinguished from other eating disorders like bulimia, binge eating, or pica. A mental health professional will also explore whether other forms of mental illness are present.

What is the treatment for emotional eating?

Overcoming emotional eating tends to involve teaching the sufferer healthier ways to view food and develop better eating habits, recognize their triggers for engaging in this behavior, and develop appropriate ways to prevent and alleviate stress.

An important step in managing stress is exercise, since regular physical activity tends to dampen the production of stress chemicals, even leading to a decrease in depression, anxiety, and insomnia in addition to decreasing the tendency to engage in emotional eating.

Engaging in meditation and other relaxation techniques is also a powerful way to manage stress and therefore decrease emotional eating. Therefore, engaging in one or two meditation sessions a day can have lasting beneficial effects on health, even decreasing high blood pressure and heart rate.

Refraining from drug use and consuming no more than moderate amounts of alcohol are other important ways to successfully manage stress since many of these substances heighten the body's response to stress. Also, indulging in use of those substances often prevents the person from facing their problems directly so they are not able to develop effective ways to cope with or eliminate the stress.

Other lifestyle changes that can decrease stress include taking breaks at home and at work. Refrain from over-scheduling yourself. Learn to recognize and respond to your stress triggers. Take regular days off at intervals that are right for you. Structure your life to achieve a comfortable way to respond to the unexpected.

For those who may need help dealing with stress, stress-management counseling in the form of individual or group therapy can be very useful. Stress counseling and group therapy have proven to reduce stress symptoms and improve overall health.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective as part of treatment for combating emotional eating. This approach helps to alleviate stress by helping the individual change his or her way of thinking about certain issues. In CBT, the therapist uses three techniques to accomplish these goals:

  • Didactic component: This phase helps to set up positive expectations for therapy and promote the person's cooperation with the treatment process.
  • Cognitive component: This helps to identify the thoughts and assumptions that influence the individual's behaviors, particularly those that may predispose the sufferer to emotional eating. A variation of the cognitive component of therapy is teaching mindfulness, paying nonjudgmental attention to the present moment. Mindfulness involves thinking more reflectively, increasing one's emotional awareness, and tends to lead to an increased ability to separate one's emotions from hunger.
  • Behavioral component: This employs behavior-modification techniques to teach the person how to stop emotional eating and use more effective strategies for dealing with problems.

If stress produces a full-blown psychiatric problem, like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), clinical depression, or anxiety disorders, then psychotropic medications, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can be extremely useful. Examples of SSRIs include sertraline, (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), or escitalopram (Lexapro).

Overeaters' Anonymous is a longstanding self-help group that can be an important resource for developing healthier ways to view food and recognizing and coping with triggers for engaging in emotional eating. Nutritionists, therapists, and other support groups can be other invaluable resources.

What is the prognosis of emotional eating?

Left untreated, emotional overeating can lead to complications, like difficulties achieving weight loss, obesity, and even to the development of food addiction. On the other hand, people who are prone to emotional eating are also often more responsive to stress reduction in correcting their tendency to emotionally eat compared to individuals who tend to eat less when exposed to stress.

Is it possible to prevent emotional eating?

The prevention of emotional eating primarily involves reducing stress, using constructive ways to understand and manage emotions, and by using food as sustenance rather than a way to solve problems (eating to live rather than living to eat). Research also shows that thinking about the future rather than staying focused on satisfying food cravings tends to prevent emotional eating. Other ways to prevent emotional eating behaviors include engaging in meditation, exercise, and other constructive stress prevention and stress management techniques, as well as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or drugs.

REFERENCES:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Bower, J.E., and S.C. Segerstrom. "Stress management, finding benefit, and immune function: positive mechanisms for intervention effects on physiology." Journal of Psychosomatic Research 56.1 (2004): 9–11.

Costanzo, P.R., G.J. Musante, K.E. Friedman, et al. "The gender specificity of emotional, situational, and behavioral indicators of binge eating in a diet-seeking obese population." International Journal of Eating Disorders 26.2 Sept. 1999: 205-210.

Epel, E.S., J. Tomiyama, and M.F. Dallman. "Stress and reward neural networks, eating and obesity." In, Food and Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Gould, R. "Say goodbye to emotional eating: why you eat when you're not hungry - and how to stop the cycle." Prevention 2011.

Hamidian, S., A. Omidi, S.M. Mousavinasab, and G. Naziri. "Comparison of the effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy accompanied by pharmacotherapy with pharmacotherapy alone in treating dysthymic patients." Iran Red Cres J 15.3 (2013).

Hilmantel, R. "Emotional eating: the easy way to prevent emotional eating." Women's Health Feb. 2014.

Marano, H.E. "Stress and eating." Psychology Today Nov. 2003.

Sproesser, G., H.T. Schupp, and B. Renner. "The bright side of stress-induced eating: eating more when stressed but less when pleased." Psychological Science Oct. 2013.

Tedesco, L. "3 ways to stop emotional eating before you start: get to the root of the problem to avoid a nose-dive into the ice cream carton." Women's Health Apr. 2014.

White, D. "Emotional eating: unstuffing our faces and emotions." Psych Central (2013).

Woolsey, C.L., J. Mannion, R.D. Williams, W. Steffen, et al. "Understanding emotional and binge eating: from sports training to tailgating." The Sports Journal May 2013.

Last Editorial Review: 8/18/2017

Reviewed on 8/18/2017
References
REFERENCES:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Bower, J.E., and S.C. Segerstrom. "Stress management, finding benefit, and immune function: positive mechanisms for intervention effects on physiology." Journal of Psychosomatic Research 56.1 (2004): 9–11.

Costanzo, P.R., G.J. Musante, K.E. Friedman, et al. "The gender specificity of emotional, situational, and behavioral indicators of binge eating in a diet-seeking obese population." International Journal of Eating Disorders 26.2 Sept. 1999: 205-210.

Epel, E.S., J. Tomiyama, and M.F. Dallman. "Stress and reward neural networks, eating and obesity." In, Food and Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Gould, R. "Say goodbye to emotional eating: why you eat when you're not hungry - and how to stop the cycle." Prevention 2011.

Hamidian, S., A. Omidi, S.M. Mousavinasab, and G. Naziri. "Comparison of the effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy accompanied by pharmacotherapy with pharmacotherapy alone in treating dysthymic patients." Iran Red Cres J 15.3 (2013).

Hilmantel, R. "Emotional eating: the easy way to prevent emotional eating." Women's Health Feb. 2014.

Marano, H.E. "Stress and eating." Psychology Today Nov. 2003.

Sproesser, G., H.T. Schupp, and B. Renner. "The bright side of stress-induced eating: eating more when stressed but less when pleased." Psychological Science Oct. 2013.

Tedesco, L. "3 ways to stop emotional eating before you start: get to the root of the problem to avoid a nose-dive into the ice cream carton." Women's Health Apr. 2014.

White, D. "Emotional eating: unstuffing our faces and emotions." Psych Central (2013).

Woolsey, C.L., J. Mannion, R.D. Williams, W. Steffen, et al. "Understanding emotional and binge eating: from sports training to tailgating." The Sports Journal May 2013.

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