Updated: Jul 9
Times are crazy right now. With this pandemic, emotions are heightened which can lead to increase search of comfort and sometimes that comes from food. Emotional eating has a bad reputation... we often hear messages like " control your eating " and "stop eating your emotions "... but is it really bad? Keep on reading :)
Also- I will be hosting a FREE WORKSHOP on emotional eating to dive deeper and give you my best strategies around emotional eating. >> SIGN UP FOR FREE
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a concept that emerged around the 1960s and is generally defined as eating in response to emotional cues, independently of biological cues. It was originally thought to be only in response to negative emotions, however, its definition has evolved to include a variety of emotions.
Emotions can influence individual's food intake in different ways (1). For some people that tend to restrict their food intake, emotions are more likely to increase the amount of food they eat, as opposed to non-restricted eaters, where food intake tends to decrease. Also, in the same group of people, different emotions may have different influence on eating habits. For instance, sadness can decrease appetite, while boredom may increase it (1). Emotional eating feels different than physical hunger, which comes gradually and is satisfied once food is eaten . Emotional eating comes suddenly and it's urging, it isn't satisfied with a full stomach, it craves specific foods and it often triggers feelings of guilt, shame and powerlessness.
Is it normal to eat when feeling emotional?
When we are feeling emotional, especially when it's a negative emotion, we look for anything that will help us to feel better. Most of us, don't like to feel uncomfortable emotions (can you relate?). Indeed, food is a source of pleasure, so it is pretty effective to provide comfort when needed. This is a cliché, but think of a movie scene after a breakup when all the friends gather around with ice cream and chocolates to comfort the main character that is in pain.
Often times, emotional eating is often perceived as bad, like it shouldn't happen and it's OUR fault if we don't know how to manage our emotions. It is perceived as lack of control and willpower... Well, I've got some news for you, this is not true. Emotional eating is normal. The bad reputation derives from diet culture telling you that food should be controlled and restricted.
Research has shown that eaters who restrict are more prone to emotional eating (2). Restricted eating refers to a persistent pattern of eating-related cognitions and behaviours to reduce or to maintain body weight (1). Having a negative body image has also been linked to increase emotional eating (3).
But why is that? Psychologists and researchers believe that for people dieting, eating is under conscious cognitive control and when a negative emotion arises, it impairs that control. Then, once the inhibition from eating is gone, the appetite that was being suppressed comes back strongly, often leading to binge eating. In that sense, emotional eating is a form of response to deprivation (1,4).
The biggest problem here is that it becomes a vicious circle. You have a negative body image, you try to diet or to control your eating, you're more vulnerable to psychological distress and therefore, more likely to " eat your emotions ". Then this leads to guilt shame and thoughts of "I have ruined your diet " and start all over again.
Comforting ourselves with food is not a bad thing. The first step is to stop demonizing it. What is problematic is having a disordered eating pattern and a negative body image, leading to more stress, low self-esteem, psychological distress and often, going only for food as a coping mechanism. Having additional ways to cope with difficult emotions is important.
Emotional eating becomes problematic when it leads to psychological distress, is used as an avoidance technique and is the only way we have to cope with emotions.
There's a need to rethink our actions towards emotional eating and rather than simply suggesting Here's What To Do Instead of Eating, we should ask why is this happening and how I can get true help to cope with my emotions.
Types of emotional eating
It is important to note that we eat emotionally for many reasons (not just comfort). There are 5 ways we can eat emotionally:
1- For pleasure
2- For distraction.
3- For comfort.
4- For sedation/numbness.
5- For punishment.
It is important to understand the intention behind consumption to better grasp what we truly need.
Sign up for the free workshop on emotional eating to learn more about these different emotional triggers.
What to do when emotional eating is out of control?
Start by taking a step back, take a big breath and please, have compassion for yourself. As you just read, emotional eating is not the problem itself and it is caused by so many others things that are not related to food itself. Let start shifting from a judgemental perpective to a curious one. In several studies, intuitive eating and mindfulness-based intervention has been shown to help and decrease the occurrence of emotional eating (5). The first step is to start healing your relationship with food and your body.
To learn more about emotional eating, don't miss out the FREE workshop happening next week! >>SIGN UP NOW!
Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Written by: Myriam Beaudry (B.Sc.Nutrition student). Thank you Myriam for this introduction to emotional eating!
(1) Macht, M. (2008). How emotions affect eating : A five-way model. Appetite, 50(1), 1‑11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2007.07.002
(2) Evers, C., Dingemans, A., Junghans, A. F., & Boevé, A. (2018). Feeling bad or feeling good, does emotion affect your consumption of food? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 92, 195‑208. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.05.028
(3) Annesi JJ, Mareno N. Improvement in emotional eating associated with an enhanced body image in obese women: mediation by weight-management treatments effects on self-efficacy to resist emotional cues to eating. J Adv Nurs. 2015;71(12):2923–2935. doi: 10.1111/jan.12766.
(4) Harrison, C. (2019). Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, Little Brown Spark (USA)
(5) Warren, J. M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours : Effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews, 30(2), 272‑283. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954422417000154