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Emotional eating and how to check it?

Updated on March 2, 2015

Emotional eating is characterized by eating to suppress negative emotions such as stress, anger, fear, sadness, loneliness and boredom. Both minor and major life events can act as triggers leading to emotional eating, which can lead to weight gain or sabotage a weight loss program. The common triggers may include unemployment, financial difficulties, health problems, work stress and relationship conflicts. Under emotional distress, a person may turn to impulsive or binge eating. Impulsive eating or binge eating is characterized by short feats in which individuals consume large amounts of calories from whatever is conveniently available without enjoying it. Such individuals tend to develop a feeling of shame after a bout of impulsive eating. They also tend to gain weight as result of overeating.

Anyone can suffer from emotional eating regardless of age, sex, race and weight. Among people with this disorder, two-thirds are obese. Although women are slightly more likely to have it, men can also have it. Men are more likely to have it in middle age. Among teens, 1.6% has this disorder.

Many people with this disorder have mental health problems like depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse. They have trouble sleeping and struggle with low self-esteem or body image shame.

A mix of factors, including a person's genes, psychology, and background, may be involved. Stressful or traumatic life events can precipitate the disorder.

Signs and symptoms of emotional eating –

Under emotional distress, the individual will obsess about food as a way to overcome stress. Emotional eating mostly is normal during celebrations including birthdays, holidays or weddings but when it becomes a person’s tactic for mood regulation, it leads to many health problems. The common signs and symptoms of emotional eating are mentioned below –

  • Compulsion to overeat during stressful, depressing or emotional situations
  • Obsessing about food when having negative and stressful feelings
  • Eating when not hungry or beyond the point of being full
  • Feeling upset about eating behavior but unable to control it

Medical basis of emotional eating –

It has been found that certain foods high in fat, sugar and salt are addictive though the idea of food addiction is controversial. But there is no doubt that eating can stimulate the release of feel good chemicals in the brain.

The researchers have found that MRI scans of the brains of individuals showed activity in certain parts of the brain when they are unhappy but when they are fed with foods rich in fat, the activity in those parts of the brain is dampened down. This shows that fat-rich foods reduce the feeling of unhappiness in unhappy individuals. So, the connection between food and mood is really independent of simple enjoyment of tastes and textures of various foods but, on the other hand, it is rooted in our biology.

Therefore, the release of feel good chemicals in the brain on eating foods rich in fat, sugar and salt gives solace to the unhappy individuals, who begin to depend on such foods leading to the habit of emotional eating.

Effects of emotional eating –

Emotional eater mostly eats comforts foods in an effort to distract themselves from pain caused by the emotional situations. This results in compulsive overeating. Of course, emotional eating has the following most common ill-effects –

  • Guilt – After an episode of emotional eating as a result of emotional distress, the individuals usually feels remorse and guilt for what they have done, which in turn causes more emotional distress, leading to further eating. Such individuals can develop low self-esteem.
  • Nausea and vomiting – Emotional eater often eat very quickly in an effort to relieve distress quickly. And thus they overeat and experience stomach pain, nausea and vomiting later.
  • Obesity – Obesity can result from repetitive eating due to emotional outbursts. Other health problems that can result from emotional eating are diabetes, high blood pressure, fatigue, and high cholesterol. It’s not worth risking your health by succumbing to emotional eating.

How to check emotional eating? –

Emotional eating has become an all-too-common problem. Many of us don't realize the extent to which our feelings can impact our eating habits. The occasional binge may seem harmless, but emotional eating can escalate into something more serious and difficult to control.

Develop awareness - Emotional eating directly results in not being conscious of what a person is eating. This is called unconscious eating. An individual continues eating, even if one has done with the meal. Its solution is to eat slowly and mindfully what and when a person is eating. Though it is difficult initially to do so, but, gradually, with practice one will be able to focus more on eating.

Avoid food as comfort – At the end of a long hectic day or under emotional stress, it is very tempting to reach for food rich in sugars and fat because they release opiods in our brain. Its solution is to reward you with something other than food or self-destructive behavior.

Do something to distract – Without an ability to tolerate emotional distress, an individual is susceptible to emotional eating. So, instead of reaching for food, do the following activities –

  • Go for a walk or jog
  • Read something good
  • Listen to music
  • Play some game with friends
  • Do any household work
  • Write a letter
  • Do any pleasurable or necessary activity

These activities will be a great help in distracting a person from emotional eating. And, gradually, one will develop tolerance to face emotional distress and thus avoid emotional eating.

Learn to manage emotions – A counselor can help in working on emotional issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to change the negative thought patterns that can spark emotional eating. Interpersonal therapy (IPT) addresses relationship problems that may be involved.

The bottom line is that emotional eating disorder is present in both sexes with a slight preponderance in women. It is also present in children to the extent of 1.6%. A mix of factors including genes, psychology and background play important roles in its causation. It is triggered by emotional distress. Emotional eating is relieved by comfort foods that are rich in sugar, salt and fats because such foods release feel good chemicals in the body. It always results in overeating because one eats mindlessly, thereby causing obesity. In fact, two-thirds of all emotional eaters are obese. Simultaneously, it can cause a feeling of guilt and poor body image in a person. But one can tackle emotional eating by eating slowly and mindfully whatever and whenever one eats. One can also seek professional help to tackle the emotional issues.


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