What is Emotional Eating and Why Does it Happen?
Emotional eating was originally defined as eating in response to negative emotions, but several researchers have now accepted positive emotions as part of emotional eating too.
However, the basis of emotional eating is much more nuanced than this definition, partly due to all the different mood states that promote overeating and the specific food that is preferably consumed by every individual can vary greatly.
We should start by saying that we are emotional beings, and its human to eat in line with our emotions – it is a very normal coping mechanism in response to strong feelings. It is incredibly common, so much so that research shows that about 75% of all our eating is emotionally driven. This may be in part due to how many factors can cause someone to eat because of their emotions: from work stress to financial worries, health issues, relationship struggles and family dynamics.
When does emotional eating become a problem?
However, when you start using it regularly to disconnect and escape from reality, or from any negative feelings such as overwhelm/anger/frustration, it can become a problem. Emotional eating can have immediate distressing effects such as feelings of guilt (Macht & Dettmer 2006), so it’s important to begin understanding when it might occur for you and how you can begin to recognise such feelings and try to act accordingly so that it doesn’t impact your wellbeing negatively.
Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. For some, food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of ‘fullness’ or temporary wholeness.
There is a biological connection between emotional eating and stress – namely that your body starts producing the hormone cortisol when you start feeling alarmed, anxious or upset. Cortisol can cause us to crave sugary, fatty or salty foods, as in evolutionary times during periods of stress, you needed all the calories you could get because you were involved in fight-or-flight situations. When you’re feeling stressed, you’re dealing with your ancient biological genes telling you, ‘Go get some food now”. This is exacerbated by the society and culture we live in today, which portrays food as something ideal if you need a mood boost or pick-me-up, emphasised by advertising and social media everywhere, encouraging people to turn to food to sooth emotions. It’s very easy to make a beeline for food when it’s available 24/7.
Written by Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)