Emotional Eating

Medically Reviewed on 3/30/2023

What is an emotional eater?

The primary difference between emotional eating and binge eating involves the amount of food that is consumed.
The primary difference between emotional eating and binge eating involves the amount of food that is consumed.

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, such as:

  • Ice cream
  • Cookies
  • Chocolate
  • Chips
  • French fries
  • 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.

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 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 (for example, over two hours), even when they are not hungry. A person with a binge eating disorder may eat much faster than normal, conceal the amount they eat out of shame, and may feel disgusted by their eating after doing so. To qualify for this diagnosis, the binges must occur an average of once per week over three months.

What are the causes and risk factors for emotional eating?

Like most emotional symptoms, emotional eating is thought to be the result of several 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 which 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 bodies 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 the food was scarce or often used as a reward or punishment, or as a substitute for emotional intimacy.


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What are the symptoms 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.

How is emotional eating diagnosed?

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. A 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, recognizing their triggers for engaging in this behavior, and developing 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 the 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 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 been proven to reduce stress symptoms and improve overall health.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is 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 promotes 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, and 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), clinical depression, or anxiety disorders, then psychotropic medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can be extremely useful. Examples of SSRIs include sertraline, (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), and 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 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.

Medically Reviewed on 3/30/2023
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