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.

Understanding Emotional Eating

Stress, Hormones, and Weight Gain

Most people admit that when they're under stress, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain. Whether eating to fill an emotional need or grabbing fast food simply because there's no time to prepare something healthy, a stressed-out lifestyle is rarely a healthy one. But weight gain when under stress may also be at least partly due to the body's system of hormonal checks and balances, which can actually promote weight gain when you're stressed out, according to some researchers.

Quick GuideEating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating

Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating

Emotional eating facts

  • Emotional eating is responding to 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.
  • 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, 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 stress by eating, even when not hungry, often 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.

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 or chronic stress. This behavior is highly common and is significant since it can interfere with maintaining a healthy diet and contribute to obesity.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/1/2016

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