Emotional eating - what it is and why we do it

How to recognise emotional eating, and how it affects your nutritional (and mental) health

Posted by for Nutrition

January is often a particularly stressful month, with pressure to do more, be more and lead a ‘healthier’ lifestyle. But with that stress often comes changes in habits that aren’t always good for you. Experts explain why emotional eating isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing – in fact, sometimes it can be a mindful choice.

One of the many reasons that restrictive diets don’t work is the fact that food is rarely just fuel. Food is often central to socialising; whether it’s meeting mates for lunch, seeing family for a birthday dinner or being gifted edible treats at a celebration, so many emotional highs and lows are marked with food. 

Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not! Is it often a tricky thing to navigate, particularly in January when we’re told to restrict to ‘make up for’ indulging over Christmas? Absolutely.   

Nicola, writer and founder of The Single Supplement, is someone who describes her emotional eating as a ‘pre-fight or flight reaction’. “For example, I was once working in a really stressful situation where there was a massive thing happening and I had to work really fast with lots of people running around, yelling at me… and I just suddenly felt starving when I was asked to get involved,” she tells Stylist. “I had to run to a vending machine to get loads of crisps, chocolates and drinks – anything I could find – because I couldn’t concentrate.” She says she had an overwhelming wave of hunger, “like my body was demanding that I store up energy ahead of a pending fight or stress.”

More recently, Nicola’s own struggles with emotional eating have become accented during successive lockdowns. “I was stressed and lonely, particularly when the country was going through the tiered system,” she explains. “Everyone has something they turn to when they’re feeling low or they have mental health issues; some people turn to categorically unhealthy things like drugs, while others are on the less severe end of the scale.”

What does ‘emotional eating’ mean?

A 2019 paper published in the Proceedings Of The Nutritional Society describes emotional eating as “(over)eating in response to negative emotions”. It goes on to warn that it poses a risk “of developing binge eating”. It’s a phenomenon in lots of cultures; in fact, the Germans even have a term, Kummerspeck (grief bacon), to describe eating food in response to sadness and worry. That’s pertinent, given the worrying stats around rising cases of eating disorders since the pandemic started, with the charity Beat telling the Huffington Post that they’d seen a 302% rise in demand for helpline services since the first lockdown in March 2020.

Dr Emilia Thompson, a nutritionist who specialises in coaching people who have a history of disordered eating (emotional or otherwise), says that emotional eating is totally normal and, as such, isn’t something to be afraid of.

“Eating in response to emotion is quite distinct from eating for physical hunger,” Dr Thompson tells Stylist. “Emotional eating often involves a craving for a specific food, can be a sudden onset, often isn’t satisfied by food and can happen at any time, sometimes in response to an emotional trigger. Physical hunger usually builds over time; a meal satisfies the feeling, and may be felt with a rumbling stomach or a dip energy levels.” 

How much control do we really have over how and why we eat?

There are lots of theories as to why we turn to food for help when we’re feeling down. Among them is the theory, as outlined in a paper published in the journal Minerva Endocrinol, that stress and other negative emotions affect key hormones like cortisol and insulin in the body. Those changes impact our hunger and desire for food-based endorphins (short-term stress, Dr Thompson flags, can shut down appetite but chronically high levels of cortisol can result in increased appetite).

Dr Greg Potter, chief science officer at Resilient Nutrition, says that we still don’t fully understand what drives emotional eating, but that “some people may be more genetically susceptible to it than others”.

“Emotional eating can also be caused by poor ‘interoception’– the ability to accurately interpret bodily sensations,” he explains. “It seems that some of us confuse hunger with sensations associated with emotions. Related to this, there’s a relatively common but underdiagnosed condition named ‘alexithymia’ in which people struggle to accurately identify and process their emotions, and emotional eating is more common in these people.”

And then there are those who may have experienced early-life trauma, which Dr Potter says can change our stress responses. “Later in life, instead of responding to adversity with a strong stress response, which usually suppresses appetite, these people mount smaller stress responses and are prone to stress eating.”

Rhiannon Lambert, registered nutritionist and ambassador to Remedy Kombucha, also flags the chemical changes that can happen in our bodies we eat certain foods: “Foods that are high in sugar and/or fat can trigger dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone) production and it’s this which in turn activates the reward and pleasure centres in our brain – making us feel good. This can be confused with food addiction, but often, we are not addicted to food: it is a complex reward and psychological pathway we build over the years with our relationship with it.”

That suggests that, at least for some of us, our emotional eating habits are biological rather than external. Nicola says that because of the way she’s reacted to high-stress situations, she believes her emotional eating is “in some way physiological”.

Of course, not everyone finds themselves eating more when upset. I, for one, find that my appetite disappears when stressed, anxious or sad; I’ll go back for second helpings of pudding when I’m happy. As Dr Thompson confirms: “People have different responses to stress” – there’s no one way to behave when things go wrong or it all feels too much.

Diet culture and emotional eating

While emotional eating isn’t necessarily a problem, the way in which we tend to talk about food and the loss of control around diets is.

To some degree, living with food as an emotional trigger is pretty common. Given that we’ve been brought up in the midst of diet culture, that’s only to be expected. Nicola explains that the times when she’s relied on food as an emotional crutch less have been when she’s been “better able to manage [her] emotions. Yoga, meditation, journalling, going for daily walks, being in nature – they’re all part of my self-care toolkit that can help. I’ll try to feel the emotion and take a few deep breaths when I’m craving something to see if I genuinely want it. But that kind of intuitive eating can be really hard because a lot of this is caught up in diet culture.

“If I’m feeling low one evening, I might have a takeaway to feel better… and then feel guilty the next day and restrict as a result. Part of the problem is seeing things like takeaways as a ‘treat’; it’s far better to just see these foods as food and try to be OK with eating them when you want them. That way, you avoid falling into a negative cycle.”

Ruth Micaleff, BACP therapist and founder of Eating Disorders Edinburgh, tells Stylist: “Diet culture can really exacerbate emotional eating by starving us, making us both hungry, and feeling like a ‘failure’ when the diet inevitably does not work. 

“Companies embroiled in diet culture want to make money out of you ‘boomeranging’ back and forth in this diet cycle, as they actively fail to deal with the true reason behind the emotional eating. Instead, they simply make you calorie count. When it comes to diet culture, we also have to consider the ‘perfectionistic overcontroller’ (POC). This tells us that if we’re perfect, we will be ‘safe’ and ‘liked’. This could be dieting, people-pleasing, trying to have perfect grades or the perfect career, a perfect aesthetic or body – just to name a few. The problem with living with the POC is that it isn’t sustainable; we will inevitably burn out (and become hungry if we are dieting), which will result in us ‘self-soothing’.”

Dr Thompson agrees: “A slice of cake may well help us feel a little better when we feel emotional, but if we classify that as a ‘bad food’, that one slice may lead to feelings of guilt. It’s then that emotional eating no longer nourishes us, and we end up feeling worse.”

Emotional eating isn’t always ‘mindless’ eating

We’ve spoken about intuitive eating before on Strong Women and how that can help us to enjoy food and start moving out of a place of guilt. Emotional eating, however, can feel like it’s not within our control. So, does that mean that it’s a ‘mindless’ activity? “Emotional eating is often, although not always, mindless,” Dr Thompson believes. But she’s keen to stress that if you know food offers you support, then there’s an awareness to how you eat – which is mindful. 

“We might be aware that we feel emotional but choose to eat anyway as it offers us some sort of genuine comfort. Some might say that is mindless, but as I remind my clients, mindful means ‘aware’, and being aware and nourished by emotional eating is OK.

“It’s really important to note that emotional eating is not inherently bad and is a completely legitimate coping mechanism when it truly nourishes our soul, we just don’t want it to be our only coping mechanism or filled with guilt and shame.”

Tips for managing emotional eating

As Dr Thompson has continued to remind us, emotional eating isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, if you want to enjoy your food and feel like stress or anxiety is stopping that from happening, there are a few things you can do.

Eat more

Even if you feel like you’ve been consuming more than you need to, Dr Thompson recommends increasing portion sizes and the amount of energy you consume at every meal.

“Eating regularly to satisfy appetite will help manage hunger, while eating more of a variety of foods and practising food neutrality (including all foods, none of which are ‘good’ or ‘bad), is a simple way to start managing regular emotional eating, aside from also working on emotional awareness,” Dr Thompson says.

Choose foods that will naturally support your mood

Lambert recommends choosing goods that have mood-boosting nutrients built into them. “I often recommend reaching for some dark chocolate and some fresh berries, which can give you additional antioxidants and fibre that can help support your mood,” she explains.

Be OK with emotionally eating

Rather than trying to see food as fuel (which is going to be totally unrealistic for many) or actively restricting (which is mentally and physically damaging), she says to “give yourself permission to ‘mindfully mindlessly’ eat the cake.” We’re talking about intuitive eating here – eating what you genuinely want to, and responding to hunger when it strikes.

Try journalling

Thompson goes on to recommend writing down your thoughts and feelings for five minutes a day, even if you think you’ve got nothing to write. It’s about transferring and processing those emotions away from food. “Journalling allows us to improve our self-awareness in general, reflect on our emotional eating episodes, understand what increased our vulnerability to that (lack of sleep, circumstance, etc) and identify alternative strategies for the next time we are triggered emotionally to eat. It allows us to dig deeper into our day-to-day behaviours, habits, thoughts, feelings and values and understand the reasons behind these. It’s also a great way to develop self-compassion and reframe how we speak to ourselves, which is associated with reduced emotional eating (and many other healthful outcomes).”

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat’s website.

Follow Strong Women on Instagram for more nutrition (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.