Our memories surrounding food date back to some of our earliest needs and emotions. Food is essential for survival, and also to culture, social rituals, and family ties. It carries the power to fuel the body, soothe the soul, and tie relationships together. So it’s no surprise that anxiety and overeating are often interconnected.
Overeating is when someone consumes more calories than what the body requires for fuel. When done frequently over extended periods of time, overeating can have many negative health consequences.
People overeat for many reasons. Food is often central to celebrations, holidays, get-togethers, and other social occasions. And it’s perfectly normal to overeat during these events. But people can also overeat when they’re sad, angry, frustrated, or under stress. In these cases, people use food as a way to cope with difficult emotions to help themselves feel better.
The relationship between food and mood is very complicated, with many intertwining biological, psychological, and social factors. The food we eat can affect our mood, and our mood can affect the food we choose to eat. (1) Sometimes this results in harmful patterns of behavior with food. But restoring a healthy relationship with food is absolutely possible with education, relational support, and therapy.
Babies learn at a very young age the principle of self-soothing, which is the ability to regulate their feelings. When a baby cries for their mother, in a healthy relationship, she will tenderly care for the child by cuddling, cooing, using calming words, hugging, rocking, kissing, or nursing. According to attachment theory, which focuses on early childhood experiences with parents and other caregivers, if children are not adequately soothed or experience trauma, they can go on to be adults with attachment injury who are unable to regulate their emotions. (2) In many children, adolescents, and adults, self-soothing manifests as overeating. (3)
Everyone has a strong, deeply ingrained relationship to food, which can be very complex and evoke many emotions. Sometimes this relationship can contribute to improved feelings of well-being, as eating naturally produces “feel good” hormones in the brain. Other times, it can make a person feel guilty, deprived, depressed, and anxious afterward.” (1)
There are many reasons why eating feels good: (4)
The key differentiating factor between eating and overeating is the loss of control (LOC). Foods high in sugar and carbs trigger a release of positive neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and other soothing hormones. (4) This has a calming effect. So people often overeat in an attempt to ease stress, anxiety, and depression and feel better. Sometimes this leads to eating that gets out of control.
Research has found that people develop overeating as a consequence of not having adequate coping mechanisms to stress and anxiety. In one study of adolescents who struggled with overeating, 40% of those who sought treatment reported loss of control, as a result of increased anxiety triggering emotional eating and loss of control. (5)
Some researchers purports that addiction science may provide insight into why food is used as a tool for self-regulating emotions, as there are some parallels between criteria for substance use and overeating behaviors. Addictions represent a neurochemical imbalance, and not a weakness in character. Overeating can be a result of a neurochemical imbalance, too.
Some studies have shown that excessive food intake seems to cause the brain to respond in ways that mimic the response of drug addiction. But this research methodology has been flawed, and findings have been inconsistent and contradictory. (6)
A growing body of more recent research has debunked the popular misconception of overeating as an addiction and food as addictive. Instead, researchers are attributing this theory to the impact of diet culture and internalized weight stigma on society.
In these more recent studies, likening overeating to addiction and labeling food as addictive is a false comparison. Food has not been found to be addictive in the same way drugs, alcohol, and other habit-forming substances or behaviors are. And overeating shouldn’t be characterized as an addiction. Laughing, dancing, being in nature, petting animals, and doing things people like to do release “feel good” hormones, too. (6)
That’s why it’s helpful in times of stress to do things that make you feel good. Unfortunately, sometimes some of those things do more damage than good. And, sometimes, people turn to things that are most readily available, such as food, because they don’t know how else to soothe themselves.
This is what happens when people experience trauma. Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event or ongoing situation, such as: (7)
Trauma and stress can damage pathways in the brain, impair some neurological functions, and drive addictive behaviors as a way to cope with strong feelings related to a traumatic event or ongoing situation. Similarly, those who have experienced trauma or are under ongoing stress can turn to addictive substances or food to cope with the difficult situation or unpleasant feelings, to soothe themselves.
The landmark Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study showed that the number of traumatic, or stressful, events someone experienced as a child increased their chances of developing addictions, autoimmune disorders, other medical conditions, mental health disorders, and being mildly or severely overweight. (8,9)
While it may seem like overeating is an addiction and food is addictive, the forces that contribute to overeating are deeper and more complex than previously thought, and society’s biases toward “thin is in” and “fat is bad” culture influence.
Anxiety is specifically linked to overeating. (10) People suffering from anxiety are looking for relief from their feelings of distress, and overeating provides a distraction or escape from their internal conflict. (1) They tend to ignore, misinterpret or simply be unaware of the cues their body is sending them. They may think they feel hungry when they are actually experiencing internal conflict and stress, and this perceived hunger leads to overeating. (11)
Depression is also directly associated with emotional eating. Those who struggle with depression struggle with identifying their emotions accurately and regulating impulses. (12) Research has shown that many individuals with major depressive disorder use food to self-soothe and are at an increased risk of weight gain and chronic disease.” (13)
Overeating is perfectly normal. People often overeat during the holidays, at special occasions, when they haven’t eaten in a while and are ravenous, or simply because something tastes really good to them, like a favorite food.
But overeating can be a problem when it happens a lot over a long period of time, usually because it is used to cope with unpleasant feelings or difficult situations. In these cases, it’s helpful to figure out what is causing a person to overeat and replace this behavior with other coping strategies.
Meditation and mindfulness can help those who struggle with overeating cultivate greater awareness of their physical state, including hunger and fullness, as well their emotional, social, and environmental triggers. (15)
Psychotherapy can also help someone who overeats frequently determine what may be driving them to overeat and what they can do to stop. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), emotionally focused therapy (EFT), and Internal Family Systems (IFS) are a few approaches to “talk” therapy that have been found to be helpful for overeating.
Yoga is also an evidence-based approach to address overeating. One study showed that a 12-week yoga treatment program for binge eating in women resulted in a healthier reconnection to food, with a reduction in food quantity, eating speed, and different food choices. This led to more positive outcomes in general wellbeing over time. (16)
Supportive care alone is often not enough to combat the urge to overeat when someone has anxiety, depression, and/or any other mood disorder. In addition to support groups, therapy, movement, and mindfulness, medications are available that target pathways involved in mood and cognition. Mood disorders often accompany disordered eating behaviors, and, often, co-occurring conditions must be treated first or at the same time.
Part of the reward pathway for eating and other “feel good” activities is regulated by neurotransmitters called dopamine and serotonin. They regulate mood in the brain, but also facilitate digestion and gut motility in the gastrointestinal tract. When there’s not enough dopamine and serotonin produced, depression can result. (13)
Vyvanse (generic name lisdexamfetamine) targets this dopamine pathway and can be helpful in reducing the urge to overeat. Serotonin has long been known to regulate thoughts and emotions. Serotonin medications such as Prozac (Fluoxetine) and Wellbutrin (Bupropion) are typically prescribed for depression but can also be helpful in managing overeating tendencies. Contrave (Bupropion-naltrexone) is a combination of medications used in treating mood and addictive behaviors that can be prescribed for overeating.
It’s important to remember that medication is just one component of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment plan for someone who is struggling with their mental health and harmful behaviors. If you think you or someone you love may be overeating on a regular basis, please reach out for help. Our clinical care team can help you get the best treatment for your specific needs. Call now to learn about our first steps.
Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.