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Emotional Eating Explained: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Overcome It

Do you often find yourself reaching for a snack when you’re stressed, feeling down, or otherwise upset? Maybe you’ve treated yourself to a delicious dessert after an aggravating day at work. Or maybe you’ve celebrated holidays with loved ones, and you’ve eaten past the point of feeling full.

When we find ourselves eating to manage stress or other emotions frequently, we may have an emotional eating habit. 

Studies show that 27% of adults eat to manage stress, and 34% of those do so habitually. Most of us engage in emotional eating from time to time. We’ve all overeaten on Thanksgiving or treated ourselves to an extra slice of cake on our birthday. These habits are common, but too much emotional eating can have a serious impact on your health. 

Research shows that with the right tools–such as a science-based approach to mindful eating–you can change your relationship with food and feel more at home in your body with better results than dieting. The key is uncovering the root causes of your emotional eating and developing self-empowerment and embodied awareness.

In this article, you’ll learn what emotional eating is, why it happens, and the best tools for breaking free from the cycle of eating to soothe your emotions.

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is the consumption of food or beverages to try to cope or seek comfort from negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, or shame. It is a common problem for many people–and not just those who struggle with weight loss or weight gain over time, although these issues can indicate that you’re in the emotional eating cycle.

You may engage in emotional eating or binge-eat (eat larger amounts of food, past the point of feeling full) during periods of increased stress. Other unpleasant emotions can also trigger the emotional eating cycle, such as depression, sadness, boredom, shame, guilt, or anger. 

You might also engage in emotional eating when you’re feeling good and want to keep that feeling going. Or you may use food as a reward. For example, you may treat yourself to an extra helping of ice cream after a long, stressful day. Or you may binge on cookies or cake as a treat on special occasions. Both negative and positive experiences can be triggers.

Emotional eating also typically involves eating foods that are high in sugar, fat, or salt that create a brief feeling of pleasure in our brains. You might eat grilled chicken and broccoli to satiate physical hunger at dinnertime, but when you’re in the emotional eating cycle, it’s more common to reach for sweets or snack foods because they create a brief feeling of pleasure. But those foods can also have unpleasant after-effects, such as lethargy, low mood, bloating, and cravings for more unhealthy foods. Modern-day living is fast-paced, demanding, and stressful, so we reach for cookies, chips, or sodas to try to regulate negative emotions, even though eating our feelings doesn’t really help us regulate emotions and often adds more misery. This can cause steady weight gain and other problems over the course of our lives.

There are some strong biological reasons why emotional eating can easily become a habit. We will explore why and how it can become a routine behavior.

Emotional Eating Signs

When we’re physically hungry, that hunger builds slowly over time. We’ll want to eat a variety of different foods, and we won’t feel guilt or shame. We’ll also normally feel a sensation of fullness after eating to satiate hunger. We’ll know when we’ve had enough, and we’ll stop. Emotional hunger is different. The classic signs of emotional eating are:
  • Eating when you’re not physically hungry
  • Eating to satiate a craving for high-sugar, high-fat foods
  • Eating to avoid a stressful situation
  • Eating to avoid or distract from unpleasant feelings
  • Eating food to reward yourself
  • Eating beyond the point of fullness
  • Feeling guilt or shame about your eating
  • Circular dieting and/or struggling with weight gain
We’ve all engaged in emotional eating at some point in our lives. And in moderation, it can be relatively harmless. But over time, frequent emotional eating can be harmful, leading to negative self-image, painful emotions, and health issues.

Emotional Eating Causes

There are several reasons we may be engaging in emotional eating. But some common factors include: 

  • Feeling alone and vulnerable during times of stress or emotional need
  • Feeling overwhelmed by stress or intense emotions
  • Difficulties distinguishing between physical hunger and emotional hunger or cravings
  • Thinking negatively about yourself (which leads to and results from emotional eating)
  • Cravings due to stress-induced increases in cortisol levels

The truth is, we all have habits we turn to for comfort. For some of us, it’s food; for others, it may be smoking or alcohol, or even social media, our digital devices, or shopping. Emotional eating is very common – food is always around, and when we feel stressed or emotions are high, eating can create a temporary feeling of wholeness or even numbness. 

No matter the cause of your emotional eating, it’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with you, and it’s not that you are weak or lack willpower. It is simply that your brain has developed a certain set of coping mechanisms and biological pathways–and that is not your fault. It’s human. 

Furthermore, you can change your relationship with food and feel at peace with your body. Change takes practice, but it is possible. By learning self-awareness, practicing self-care, and developing a sense of empowerment and the ability to make mindful choices, we can dramatically change the way we feel about and relate to ourselves. And developing these strengths can be very nourishing and liberating. 

The first step in breaking free from emotional eating is understanding the science behind it. Let’s take a look at our brain’s reward system and how we form habits. 

Why We Engage in Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a habit, and all of our habits contain three parts: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. 

Essentially, we see food that looks good (the trigger,) and our brain says, “Survival!” So we eat the food (the behavior.) It tastes delicious, and we feel good (the reward.) Now, especially with sugar, our bodies send a signal to the brain, noting what the food is and where we found it. This creates a memory, and we learn to repeat this process over time–creating a habit. 

This reward cycle worked well for us in pre-agricultural times, when food was scarce. But in our modern society, where food is everywhere and we’re under copious amounts of stress, our brains have realized that we can eat delicious foods anytime we want to feel better. So anytime we’re stressed, anxious, or upset, we turn to food to alleviate those feelings–usually high-fat or high-sugar foods. 

But because high-sugar, high-fat foods hijack our brain’s reward system and override our brain’s natural signals that tell us when we’re full, the “reward” isn’t so rewarding anymore–because we feel worse after we eat too much. And when we feel low, we’re more likely to eat to comfort ourselves. And the vicious cycle of emotional eating continues. 

The Cycle of Emotional Eating 

When we eat high-fat, high-sugar foods, our brains release chemicals like dopamine that further endorse our emotional eating cycle. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain that is associated with reward-based learning and drives us to repeat behaviors that are rewarding. When we’re in the reward cycle, we keep coming back for more. This creates and perpetuates a cycle of cravings, eating more food, and weight gain. 

This is why the cycle of emotional eating is so insidious. When we feel stressed or upset, we reach for comfort foods to feel better. Then we feel a new emotion, such as guilt or shame…which triggers us to reach for food again. And the cycle continues, further reinforcing itself in our brains as a habit. 

Emotions can be overwhelming, and our brains are wired to form habits. So this cycle is incredibly easy to get stuck in.

Effects of Emotional Eating

In addition to feeling guilt or shame, it’s also common to feel low, sad, sluggish, angry, or disappointed in yourself. Long-term, of course, there are health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, fatigue, and high cholesterol. 

Obesity and weight-related illnesses have become an epidemic over recent years, with 13% of adults being obese and 39% of adults being overweight. This is a nearly 300% increase since 1975. So it’s no surprise that there’s a new diet craze every 2 years or so. 

But dieting doesn’t work. Dieting doesn’t address the underlying issues behind unhealthy eating habits. Studies show that 60% or more of individuals who are overweight or obese are emotional eaters, and dieting does not address emotional triggers. What will help you address your emotional triggers is a science-based approach, utilizing mindfulness training–which has been shown to reduce craving-related eating by 40%.

You can lose weight and reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease–but the magic bullet is not a diet. Dieting often fails because it requires willpower, restriction, and force, which can provide additional stressors that exacerbate an emotional eating disorder. A more effective approach to changing your eating habits is learning how your brain works so you can work with your brain, not against it. You can rewire your brain.

Rewiring your brain to change your habits might sound like a tall order. But it takes less effort than you’d think. It all starts with something we all have, all the time, and can develop in greater capacity relatively quickly: awareness. And the most effective method for cultivating greater awareness is mindfulness.

How to Overcome Emotional Eating

Mindfulness is a technique that involves purposefully and non-judgmentally paying attention to the present moment. It’s a highly effective tool for emotional eating because it teaches us to change how we relate and respond to our internal experiences rather than being controlled by them. Once we change our relationship with habits, we can make different choices and create lasting changes.

It may be helpful to keep a journal to explore your eating habits–but not a typical food journal in which you write down what foods you ate and how many calories they contained. Instead, you may want a journal to help you note observations you make while becoming more aware of your experience to rewire your brain. The Eat Right Now program features an online journal that you can share with a supportive community of people just like you who are on the path to overcoming emotional eating, which can help you explore your experiences. 

The process of using mindfulness to explore your experiences is: 

  1. Recognize your habits. With a nonjudgmental sense of curiosity, notice when you get triggered. Triggers can be internal (such as thoughts or emotions) or external (such as a stressful conversation or day at work). It is ok if you’re not sure what triggered you, triggers are the least important part of the habit. It may be helpful to use this worksheet to map out the trigger, behavior, and result stages of your habits.
  2. Explore the reward. Ask yourself, kindly and honestly, “What am I really getting from this habit?” What are all the results? Drop into your direct experience and notice all the  results–and how long they last. This helps your brain update the reward value of your habits. Maybe the food tasted great for a few minutes but leads to discomfort. How does your stomach feel? Are you feeling guilty, sad, or disappointed? Do you feel lethargic for hours after? Remember to engage with kind curiosity as you notice all the thoughts and emotions that come up. Tuning into all of the unpleasant consequences of our habits leads us to become disenchanted with them. And over time, they lose their power over us.
  3. Work with habits, ride out cravings, and make choices that feel good. Once you’ve built up enough disenchantment with your habits, you can choose to do something more rewarding in its place–without the use of force or willpower. Use mindful awareness when a craving strikes, notice the sensations in your body, and the thoughts and emotions that come up. Then you can make an empowered choice to meet your needs in a healthy way. For example, if you’re tired and stressed, you might choose to give yourself a hot bath and some extra rest instead of eating. 

You can practice this process in the moment when you get a craving and reach for your favorite foods, noticing the sensations in your body and the thoughts and emotions that arise during and after eating. Or you can do this retroactively by asking yourself questions about the last time you engaged in emotional eating. For example, you can think back and ask, “What triggered my eating, and how did it feel? And what was my experience afterward?” 

Over time, you’ll learn to use the above three-step process to change unhelpful habits instead of using willpower. It may sound strange, but by kindly turning toward your feelings and cravings instead of avoiding them, you’ll develop healthier habits that stick–naturally.

Eat Right Now: The #1 Tool for Emotional Eating Help

Even if you’ve struggled with emotional eating for decades, you can change those habits and enjoy a healthy relationship with food. Engaging in a mindful eating program–especially one that involves a community of people just like you who share your challenges and can support you–can help.

Eat Right Now is an evidence-based program developed by neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Judson Brewer. It is a unique mindfulness training program that helps you understand how your mind works and learn tools to change unwanted eating behaviors to create a new relationship with food. With daily lessons, craving-specific tools, journaling capabilities, and a supportive online community–complete with live weekly calls and expert facilitators–you can learn to differentiate between real hunger and emotional craving and build new healthy habits that last.

Ready to feel at home in your body? Start the Eat Right Now program today.

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