Emotional eating is eating in response to emotional cues, often to cope with or soothe difficult emotions, rather than in response to hunger.
Food is necessary for survival and serves important social and cultural purposes. Eating can be a source of comfort, pleasure, and positive memories. Many people eat in response to certain emotions at least some of the time, and doing so is not inherently harmful. However, some people may experience emotional eating that feels compulsive, disrupts their lives, feels like their only strategy for coping with difficult emotions, or causes extreme guilt and shame.
Individuals can be more vulnerable to emotional eating when they are experiencing:
Individuals who experience anxiety, depression, and stress may turn to foods for comfort. Food provides reward signals to the brain through pathways such as the mesolimbic dopamine system (MDS), which is thought to mediate the processing of motivational salience, pleasure, and reward. (1)
In some cases, emotional eating can bring about a restriction-binge cycle, which can feel scary and out of control. Both emotional eating and binge eating can be triggered and exacerbated by restriction. This can happen both in response to physical deprivation and psychological restriction, especially when certain foods or food groups have been mentally labeled off-limits. So yes, emotional eating or compulsive “overeating” can be classified as disordered eating.
For individuals who want to stop the cycle of restricting and emotionally eating, or who want to work on developing alternative responses to difficult emotions, there are several important factors to consider. Because emotional eating can be a response to physical or mental deprivation, eating enough food consistently is essential, as is making sure that no foods are labeled bad or off-limits unless there are allergies or intolerances. Regularly incorporating any foods that were previously restricted can reduce out of control feelings around them.
Building a relationship with food that factors in physical needs, pleasure, and satisfaction can involve with following:
Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating increased awareness of one’s thoughts. Mindfulness can be enhanced through simple exercises such as: slow deep breathing, guided imagery, and body awareness. These practices can be incorporated into making decisions around food.
Intuitive eating is a strategy for making peace with all types of food, while reducing the stigma of “good” and bad” foods. This concept was developed by Dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
The 10 Principles of intuitive eating, are: (5)
These approaches can help with understanding hunger cues. Hunger is not something that needs to be fought or resisted, but rather a useful signal of your body asking for fuel. Consider practicing feelings of awareness and gratitude when your body signals hunger to your brain.
Some people dealing with emotional eating that they find distressing may be experiencing an eating disorder. Working with an eating disorder dietitian, eating disorder therapist, and other professionals can help identify beliefs, behaviors, and physical problems that might be related to this distress.
Reducing emotional eating can be part of a person’s treatment goals for eating disorder recovery. This should be accompanied by developing strategies for eating enough food to meet physical needs, incorporating a variety of foods regularly, and practicing multiple strategies for emotional regulation. Intuitive eating may not be possible right away for people who have eating disorders if they don’t have consistent hunger and fullness cues, but it is a goal that some people want to work towards in recovery.
For people without eating disorders who want to work towards a better relationship with food, it can be beneficial to work with a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating.
Specialists at Within Health are available to help you learn about emotional eating awareness and behavior strategies. We acknowledge that people affected by emotional eating are coping with powerful forces in the brain, and difficult-to-break cycles of behavior. Within Health offers compassionate support with evidence-based interventions to help improve relationships with food.