Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/20/2022
Emotional eating is a guilty pleasure and coping mechanism for many people: men, women, young and old alike. A little salty or sweet treat, some pizza and ice cream…it’s all a way to indulge a bit after a stressful day, traumatic event or even some bad news.
Eating poorly for a night or two after a break-up or after leaving a job is normal, and a behavior that nobody should feel guilty about. But what happens when it becomes a pattern?
When emotional eating gets out of control, it can affect our health in a surprising number of ways. It can affect our sleep cycle, increase the risk of depression, and sometimes it can even affect our genes.
Controlling emotional overeating is possible with practice and the right support. What that means may differ from one person to another, but for most people, it starts with education.
Emotional eating is another name for a change in dietary habits caused by emotional stress. Emotional eating is a form of overeating — one typically associated with depression, anxiety and other negative emotions and disorders.
When you eat emotionally or indulge emotional hunger, you’re often not responding to physical hunger. Instead, you’re consuming food for comfort in response to an uncomfortable emotion.
People who eat emotionally are typically going to consume palatable foods with high-energy density. In other words, food with a lot of calories that also tastes really good.
That can mean foods high in sugar, carbs, salt or fat. Emotional eating typically involves junk food or comfort food — which may not sound like a surprise.
Typically emotional eating is something we do to cope with negative emotions; it’s a form of self medication, but with burgers instead of booze or drugs.
The medical community is not sure what causes someone to be at a higher risk for emotional eating. Depression, insomnia and genetics may all lead to a heightened risk for emotional eating behaviors, but to what extent one matters more than another is not something we can explain yet.
What we do know is that emotional eating is a stress response that crosses the wires in your brain, and in this case between your sense of security and your satiety, or your stress and stomach. When your stress hormone cortisol levels spike, so can your food cravings.
According to research, we engage in emotional eating for a number of reasons. They can include a response or “disinhibition” to diet, poor emotional regulation and a lack of awareness about feelings of hunger and satiety (basically, an inability to tell the difference between hunger and some other unsatisfied need).
This lack of awareness — sometimes referred to as poor introspective awareness — is one of the most frequent reasons cited by self-reported emotional eaters.
But emotional eating might also be a response to trauma and abuse. It’s been linked with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, for example, and research shows that, especially in African American communities, it can be a response to childhood trauma.
Emotional eating due to childhood trauma is considered a reversed stress response. Typically, people respond to stress and trauma with hyperactivation, which usually includes a loss of appetite.
There’s a close association between emotional eating in these circumstances and binge eating, where the “value” of food as a self-medication tool can be in blunting the effects of negative emotions and negative feelings.
The idea of a pint of ice cream after some bad news or a stressful encounter isn’t problematic in and of itself — in fact, self soothing with food is considered a normal behavior.
But when emotional eating becomes a problematic pattern, it can manifest as damage to your physical health, too.
Emotional eating is considered a strong associating link between depression and obesity: two conditions that can make one another worse over time, if left untreated. And you really don’t want your mental health and physical health to be two anchors, each dragging you deeper into the abyss.
It would make sense, then, that emotional eating, like depressed thoughts or chronic stress, is something you need to address for your short- and long-term health.
There are several ways to help manage emotional eating, and while the science of effective treatment for emotional eating is relatively new and in process, there are some therapeutic approaches considered effective for addressing the problem. These include:
Many people might assume that a calorie-restrictive diet is an effective way to treat emotional overeating, but in fact research shows that it’s more effective to focus on regulating the emotions associated with overeating. One way to do that is to separate the act of eating from the act of feeling.
The simplest way to address emotional eating is to begin practicing mindful eating — which means literally thinking about what you eat, how much and when.
Replacing emotional eating and other mindless eating practices with a more structured set of meal and snack times is a great way to impose order on your consumption, and it sets up more boundaries that need to be crossed before you engage in emotional overeating.
Mindful eating may look like identifying the cues that make you go from feeling to fridge, and learning to spot and modify these patterns is linked to successful mitigation of binge eating problems.
Therapy is a particularly effective mechanism for emotional issues and disorders, and emotional eating is no different. The type of therapy that you engage in for emotional eating might be similar to the therapy that’s effective for other mental health issues, but one particularly effective approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT helps you recognize behaviors and patterns, and become aware enough of them to begin learning to control them. In the case of overeating, CBT may look like learning to regulate feelings of distress without food, or learning to consume food in moderation when distressed.
It’s possible that overeating and binge eating are just one of many symptoms you’re dealing with from a larger mental health issue. Mental illness can be hard to spot until it has begun to impact your life and keep you from doing the things you want to do.
As a result, treatment is rarely proactive. Luckily, the techniques we do have for addressing mental health are generally considered safe and effective, regardless of whether your behavioral issues are a result of depression, anxiety, trauma or something else.
CBT (as mentioned above) is just one of many therapeutic treatment avenues your healthcare professional might suggest for emotional eating and/or other mental health issues. This type of therapy can help you control and become more mindful of your behavior in a way that will return some agency to your life.
More serious issues may also require antidepressant medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other antidepressants (which can also be used in the treatment of anxiety and other mood disorders). Ask a mental health professional if these may be right for you.
Hunger, anxiety, stress and depression all represent difficult feelings to work through, and when your stress levels get out of control or strong emotions begin to take over, it can be hard for all of us to exercise some dietary restraint.
Whether it’s training yourself to eat healthier foods, getting regular exercise, or otherwise adjusting your food consumption, there are many practical ways to exert some self-control around food. But they’re only going to take you so far.
If you’re struggling as an emotional eater, it may be time to get help.
Consider trying psychiatry or therapy. Your mental health professional may employ some of the strategies and methods mentioned above, or suggest other ways of treating your symptoms. One thing is for sure though: they’re uniquely qualified to help you with your individual needs.
Getting tailored help isn’t hard, but it does take initiative. Once you take that step you can learn some beneficial eating habits, keep yourself at a healthy weight and get back to enjoying your food.