Home It's All Mental What, Exactly, Is Emotional Eating?

What, Exactly, Is Emotional Eating?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

After yesterday’s super-science-heavy post about how food and the brain interact with one another, I thought it might be valuable to discuss emotional eating as well.

Though there are a lot of women who are well aware of what emotional eating truly is and how it affects our ability to conquer weight loss as well as improve our health… there are a lot of us who kind of gloss over the topic – either intentionally or subconsciously – because we either don’t know the realities of it, or we simply fear the realities of it.

Hopefully, I can provide an easy and clear understanding.

A while back, I remember hearing this quote: “If hunger is not the problem, food is not the answer.” It didn’t dawn on me what that meant, because I was so thick in the throes of finally overcoming my weight hurdles that nothing could make me so upset that I’d emotionally eat. It didn’t dawn on me until much later on that that quote addresses emotional eating head on.

What is emotional eating? It’s eating for any purpose other than nourishing the body. If you’re not running the super-extend-race-of-a-lifetime, there’s no reason to gorge out on pasta. If you’re not genuinely in need of nourishment, you’re not genuinely in need of food.

How do you spot emotional eating?

From WebMD:

1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.

2. When you are eating to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you’re open to options.

3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.

4. Even when you are full, if you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to keep eating. When you’re eating because you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop when you’re full.

5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.

I really like this list because we all know situations where this list applies – the girl who just broke up with her boyfriend and now needs a pint of cookies-n-cream, the woman who just got chewed out by her boss and must find the nearest bakery – and we all may be able to recall a time where we’ve eaten beyond our “full” feeling because we were eating for that “ahhhh” feeling. There’s also this point about guilt – if I’m genuinely starving (which shouldn’t happen), I don’t feel bad about eating to fix that. If I’m eating emotionally, I’m giving up my ability to control how much food I take in because I’m not eating for nourishment, which has a finite point (that full feeling.) I’m eating to achieve an emotional feeling which, as we’ve seen lately, can very well take me beyond the point of fullness… and beyond the amount of calories I should be consuming for the meal, or even for the day.

There’s also the issue of what one chooses to use as a tool in emotional eating. It’s never “Oh, I’ve gotta have some broccoli right now.” It’s never “If I don’t get some carrots… right now.. I’m gonna cry!” It’s “Where’s the number to Papa John’s?” This is where the term “comfort food” comes into play.

How and why does emotional eating work?

How is it that emotional eating can cause and trigger such a response in the brain?

Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.

See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.

One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.

Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.

Compare this to emotional eating. The body’s reaction doesn’t change no matter what variables you swap out. Regardless if the stress comes from traffic, bad work day, or family problems… the body’s reaction to stress has not evolved as fast as society has. Now, we can get food within ten minutes if we drive or own a microwave. So presuming our body believes that stress is caused by a “famine on the way,” then it’s going to trigger feelings to make you go hunt! Our bodies just don’t know how easy it is to get food just yet. It hasn’t caught up.

This is what compels us to believe that emotional eating is the answer.

Emotional eating is defined as eating for a purpose other than curing hunger. If you’re eating for that gooey “Mmmmm” feeling, then yes – chances are, you might be emotionally eating. Approximately 75% of all overeating is attributed to emotional eating.

Because our bodies always provide this same reaction to food in a time of stress, our body’s reward system tells us that it makes sense to eat when stressed. It’s the fastest way to rid ourselves of this negative emotion, right? Stressed out about money and bills? You’re probably going to find the cheapest and quickest way to stick something in your mouth to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. For some of us, that means we’ll be Dollar Menunaires for an hour. For some of us, that means we’ll be hittin’ up the Edy’s or Blue Bell. For others, we’ll be needing peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies.

Excerpted from Telling A Tale of Stress and Emotional Eating | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

What is a comfort food? It’s a food eaten to provide comfort, usually laden with sugar, fat, salt or a wild combination of such. Macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food, is a prime example: the overabundance of fat and salt can quickly put you in a food coma.

It’s easy to see how emotional eating can hinder one’s efforts to lose weight and gain control of our eating habits… but how do you stop?

How do you stop emotional eating?

Remember – if you are using emotional eating as a crutch to bring that kind of “peace” and “satisfaction” to your life, you are using emotional eating as a coping mechanism. You’re basically using it to make you happy. Think long and hard about that – is there happiness missing in other places in your life? Is there no other way you can bring yourself satisfaction? Are you avoiding stressful situations? The best way to deal with stress is to face the source of the stress head up. Developing a hobby – knitting, beading, kickboxing, jogging, yoga – or finding an outlet for your frustration so that you have something to do will make a difference. It’s much better than sitting idly by inhaling ice cream because we feel lonely.

The very same WebMD article offers these answers:

  • Recognize emotional eating and learn what triggers this behavior in you.
  • Make a list of things to do when you get the urge to eat and you’re not hungry, and carry it with you, according to the Tufts Nutrition web site. When you feel overwhelmed, you can put off that desire by doing another enjoyable activity.
  • Try taking a walk, calling a friend, playing cards, cleaning your room, doing laundry, or something productive to take your mind off the craving — even taking a nap, according to the Tufts Nutrition web site.
  • When you do get the urge to eat when you’re not hungry, find a comfort food that’s healthy instead of junk food. “Comfort foods don’t need to be unhealthy,” says Wansink.
  • For some, leaving comfort foods behind when they’re dieting can be emotionally difficult. Wansink tells WebMD, “The key is moderation, not elimination.” He suggests dividing comfort foods into smaller portions. For instance, if you have a large bag of chips, divide it into smaller containers or baggies and the temptation to eat more than one serving can be avoided.
  • When it comes to comfort foods that aren’t always healthy, like fattening desserts, Wansink also offers this piece of information: “Your memory of a food peaks after about four bites, so if you only have those bites, a week later you’ll recall it as just a good experience than if you polished off the whole thing.” So have a few bites of cheesecake, then call it quits, and you’ll get equal the pleasure with lower cost.

I believe that once you know the “benefit” of emotional eating, it takes a very long time to recognize exactly how unsustainable it is as a habit in clean eating. I believe it also takes a lot of time learning how to be conscious of your surroundings and triggers to beat it. It is absolutely possible, though, with the right amount of awareness and self-care… but with those two things, anything’s possible.

How do you identify your emotional eating habits? How are you learning to overcome? How have you overcame thus far?

This is what compels us to believe that emotional eating is the answer.

Emotional eating is defined as eating for a purpose other than curing hunger. If you’re eating for that gooey “Mmmmm” feeling, then yes – chances are, you might be emotionally eating. Approximately 75% of all overeating is attributed to emotional eating.

Because our bodies always provide this same reaction to food in a time of stress, our body’s reward system tells us that it makes sense to eat when stressed. It’s the fastest way to rid ourselves of this negative emotion, right? Stressed out about money and bills? You’re probably going to find the cheapest and quickest way to stick something in your mouth to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. For some of us, that means we’ll be Dollar Menunaires for an hour. For some of us, that means we’ll be hittin’ up the Edy’s or Blue Bell. For others, we’ll be needing peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies.

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Michalet Corbett-Clark December 3, 2010 - 2:41 PM

Erika I didn’t know I was an emotional eater until just now. I can’t bypass calamari. No matter where I am if I see it on the menu I have to order squid. It’s my Pavlov’s Dog. Everybody thinks it’s hilarious but I don’t care as long as I don’t have to share too much of it. 
Salt & pepper squid, curry squid, baked stuffed squid, fried (tentacles only) squid, insert cooking style squid. You can leave your man and your chocolate safe with me but squid. Leave it at your own risk. Seriously

Erika December 3, 2010 - 11:12 PM

Michalet… squid?

I mean, there are some things that I can’t get with but I accept – okra, for one – but squid? LMAO!

Rooo October 1, 2012 - 9:51 PM

I grill or sauté my calamari and I don’t guilt about it.
I just don’t get it fried.

(And if I’m out with the girls and it’s fried on the menu, I *ask* if I can have it grilled before moving on to another menu item. It’s okay to have the “healthy kind” of what you want; keeps the blood sugars level and the weight off, because you’re not running round with lip stuck out feeling deprived. 🙂 )

Karuna December 3, 2010 - 4:21 PM

This is a good post, Erika! I Tumblr’d it :). I’d love to learn more about how emotional eating triggers the dopamine reward system in the brain, because I think that’s ultimately where the (temporary) satisfaction comes from.

I’d add that I think the opposite is also true: girls who don’t eat in order to trigger that same dopamine reward system…just that theirs gets triggered in reverse.

Erika December 3, 2010 - 11:09 PM

Grrr… I have that information in a book that I JUST packed away! I’ll have to do some digging, maybe I can post next week.

“Girls who don’t eat in order to trigger that same dopamine reward system,” as in girls who avoid eating and take pride in NOT eating? As in eating disorder philosophy? They actually get satisfaction from being able to NOT eat and “maintain their skinny?” I do believe that. I see plausibility in that.

Tabitha December 3, 2010 - 4:57 PM

I do the first few bites of a dessert (then toss it) thing. The first few bites are the only ones we need, the rest of eating the dessert is just “going through the motions” becuz it’s there.

Also I live alone and I DO NOT keep sweets or convenience foods in the house. If I want sumthin “special” I gotta go out & get it or defrost & cook so that means I only eat when truly hungry.

Erika December 3, 2010 - 11:07 PM

I think that’s a HUGE deal – being the gatekeeper of your kitchen and making sure that anything that DOESN’T belong there is tossed out. Pronto. I don’t play that game in MY house, LOL.

Kim December 3, 2010 - 10:58 PM

Thank you for this, Erika. I am absolutely an emotional eater, and I’m working on identifying my triggers. I’ve been trying to explain to people for the longest how I feel like an addict the way I crave food at times. Great info!

Erika December 3, 2010 - 11:04 PM

You know what? I honestly wouldn’t tell other people that, and here’s why:

1) Emotional eating is SO common – that feeling where you can’t control yourself – that there are efforts to normalize it. It’s not normal to feel like you can’t go without something specific, especially if its a processed food/non-homemade dish.

2) There are people who will tell you – just as a means of being polite – to not worry about it, that it’s no big deal. If it makes YOU uncomfortable, then its something worth your time and effort to focus on changing.

3) Changing emotional eating is something that takes forever. Even though I’m at the point where it no longer “works” on me, I still GET that craving. If I’m not thinking, I’ll begin to succumb to it.. but the moment I bite into it, I realize that I don’t even want it, wind up spitting it out and tossing. I’ve been working at this for over a year, now. It takes time and demands your efforts to protect yourself from someone detracting you while you on that long path to changing it, you know?

I don’t think I’m particularly revolutionary with sharing all this stuff since there’s tons of it on the web, but I DO know that it’s not often that women get together and truly discuss how frustrating emotional eating really is… so if your people don’t seem ready or able to talk about it, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it to yourself for now. Ya know? *big hug* from another struggler. 🙂

Stefanie August 11, 2011 - 3:23 PM

To Kim and Erika,
It is indeed a battle – we know that and now that we are aware of it – it’s an even larger battle because we know this is not the way to live. Like Kim, I have told people here and there, that I feel I am addicted to food. Some of them just laugh, while others give me this perplexed look. (smile). So, I realized a lot of people DON’T understand. And, like you mentioned, Erika, because so many people are emotional eaters, it’s ‘normal’ to a lot of people to eat whenever they feel like it – whether hunger is in place or not.
But I have learned that not ALL of my issues should be disclosed to everyone. Bluntly put, everyone does not understand the struggle most times if they have not experienced it fist hand. And that’s ok.
But I am getting a handle on this emotional eating by God’s grace. I love the fact that people are sharing their wisdom and I am taking all that I can. One day at a time. :)…

Amber December 6, 2010 - 10:47 AM

Great info!

I am an emotional eater, and I am very aware of it. The things that trigger me to eat mindlessly vary from happiness when talking to a friend on the phone, to work stress. And we always have sweets sitting around at my job. I hate it. I swear corporate America is out to get me!

I think I need to find more constructive ways of releasing the work stress that don’t include devouring my anguish in donut form.

Georgina December 7, 2010 - 8:21 AM

I’m with Michalet. Squid is GORGEOUS. You and me would FIGHT over fried calamari! LOL.

The problem with OE is that food becomes a drug, but unlike smoking, drinking or crack, you can’t quit eating. That said, if the ‘clean eating’ philosophy has taught us anything, it’s that not everything qualifies as food, and it’s that stuff that trips us up. I’m wary of Skittles the way a reformed drinker is wary of Jack Daniels; you HAVE to admit that some foods are like a narcotic for you.

What you can also do is stop yourself between the emotional trauma and the binge, and ask what you can do to soothe those feelings without food; how you can solve the problem without eating your feelings. Also, keep trigger foods out of the house! My housemate buys packets of biscuits and sweets, scoffs the lot, and then complains about it. It’s a problem you can only solve if you help yourself. There’s a vending machine in my office building, and I make sure I have no change for the machine.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I STRONGLY urge fellow overeaters to get a copy of ‘Eating Less’ by Gillian Riley. It’s really helped me recognise and manage my addictive eating. Well, by ‘really helped’ I mean ‘revolutionised my LIFE’.
I’m that girl who used to overeat to the point of pain, even hangover – then spend hours locked in the bathroom, doubled up in agony, after taking laxatives. Then I’d hate myself and do it over again to ease the pain, and didn’t realise I was chasing a high. Now I see it for what it is, it’s easier for me to say no to binge-trigger foods, and even if I do slip up, I accept it and move on.

Erika December 7, 2010 - 10:10 AM

Have you read the post I wrote on disordered eating?

Melissa July 22, 2011 - 8:12 PM

I’ve just read the “disordered eating” article that you referenced. It was extremely impacting, and you’re very courageous and generous to have shared your experience with us. Thank you for being so transparent and brave. I agree the general public thinks that eating disorders plague only white female. However, coming from a family of eating disorder suffers and being one myself is contrary to this misconception. Emotional and stress eating, binging and purging, food addiction, and self-starvation are very present in the black community even black men suffer from these disorders. Thanks again for writing this and a special thanks for providing the WebMD list on identifying emotional eating behaviors.

Erica Freeland June 23, 2011 - 11:23 PM

I have known I was an emotional eater for most of my life.
Stress just makes everything worse. It just feels like an escape to avoid the emotions.
Crazy enough I have gone through craving fresh veggies and fruit…and water.
Maybe the list will help. But, it’s awfully hard ignoring what takes the pain away.

Nquizativ June 24, 2011 - 7:32 PM

Have you written anything on food addiction?

Stefanie August 11, 2011 - 3:35 PM

Its amazing how SERIOUS emotional eating is. The other day, I got stressed out over something. It all started with making a not so good phone call to customer service with my cell phone provider. Then it went to me being upset because I knew I needed to cancel the service but I would have to pay an early termination fee then I thought I really don’t have the extra $ for that then it went to stressed about responsibility and I just cried!!!! Sad part my son was there. He knows I can be a bit of a basket case. It’s amazing how children are wiser/smarter than we adults want to give them credit for. Anyway, my son gave me some simple words: it’s ok mom, you don’t have to get upset. Do what you can. And the better part of me knew that. The better part of me said find something to do to take my mind off of the stress. But the comfortable part of me said: you need to eat this away. And I sure did! I ate until I ‘felt’ better. But the even more IRONIC thing is that after I ate, I felt even worse for eating like I didn’t care AND the intial source of the stress didn’t go away but quickly sprang back up. I know this struggle is NOT over but I know I don’t have to always easily give into my emotional food urges anymore. And that alone, is a victory!

lindsey August 21, 2011 - 5:19 PM

This was so wonderful and in depth

Jaykneecole February 22, 2012 - 1:09 AM

I have finally gotten to a point where I can stop myself when I feel the urge to turn to food and ask myself if I was truly hungry. I also had to switch my response to the trigger. Art/crafts are what I replaced food with. Crocheting a new hat, or loom knitting a new scarf gave me more satisfaction, less guilt, and also gave me a chance to process and sort whatever it is that was bothering me. I had to replace the food with something not related to food to gain better control of the habit. I also had to find better ways of rewarding my successes in life instead of celebrating with food. Its a struggle everyday but when I recognize the trigger and can move past it without having a binge, the satisfaction I feel is far greater than the binge itself.

tinabobina October 1, 2012 - 6:05 PM

I’m an emotional eater. I normally crave sugary foods as opposed to salty foods.

Which makes me feel as though I am addicted to sugar.

I fully realized the impact of this when I visited my parents’ house this weekend. I normally don’t keep sweets in the house, or I hide them from myself…but when I went home, I saw all these sugary snacks “in plain view” and just wanted to scarf down the imported European chocolate cookies that were just sitting in the fridge.

What’s weird about this to me is that my parents are diabetic and are supposed to limit their sugar intake. I wonder if there is some sort of disconnect–they may buy more fruits and veggies and that’s cool, but if you have all sorts of cookies and sodas and stuff around…won’t that still aggravate your blood sugar problem??

Essemess October 7, 2012 - 1:06 PM

I am an emotional eater. I haven’t yet gotten to that all important point where I can stop myself because it all happens so fast. By the time I realize I am eating to stem emotions, I have already eating most and often all of that addictive food.

I have tried keeping high sugar/fat foods out of the house but then before I know what’s happened. I am back home from having gotten in the car, gone to the fast food outlet or supermarket. and stuffing my face full of some usually “outlawed” food.

I will go now and download a copy of that book by Gillian Riley and see if I can use that to help me find a tool that works for me.

Monica October 27, 2012 - 11:06 PM

I am so happy to have stumbled on this blog. This is a great article. I am an emotional eater and I have read this article, like 3 times. The website has been giving me motivation. I enjoy exercising and am consistent but I am trying to change my eating lifestyle. I love all food but I would like to remove the emotional eating from my life. Thank you for sharing. I will sure visit this site often for encouragement and motivation. Thank you for sharing your journey you are touching lives!

Anna Trusty June 29, 2013 - 10:11 AM

I have been struggling lately with this. I lost over 100 lbs and am 15 pounds from my ideal weight (body fat percentage actually)…

I have been on a long plateau and I am starting to let emotional eating slip back in.

I needed to read this.

Thank you!

queen five July 4, 2013 - 8:59 AM

Hmmm…am I an emotional eater? Just about everything I eat is a craving… I know EXACTLY what I want for lunch and dinner and I could have just gone grocery shopping but if I want greasy spoon Chinese for dinner, I find it very hard not to stop and pick it up after work… I always brush off the term “emotional eater” because I don’t think I eat because I’m sad or happy…I just have harsh cravings… But after I read this, I am wondering if I am just a big emotinal eater… My boyfriend eats what ever I cook or BRING home but I’m very SPECIFIC with what I want to eat.

Ben JSM March 3, 2014 - 1:57 AM

Emotional eating doesn’t just have to be induced by feelings of sadness or happiness, even a blog post about foot or a cooking show can suddenly trigger the urge to eat even when you’re not hungry or weren’t previously interested in food.

Joanna March 3, 2014 - 9:59 AM

This is a really nice summary, thank you. Despite investigating my relationship with food over the past few years, I was adamant I wasn’t an emotional eater until now. I always thought it really just referred to those who go all out on food when feeling stressed or upset, but the first point from WebMD (sudden emotional hunger) is EXACTLY what I get. I’m definitely going to try the first few bites thing!

Carolina April 7, 2014 - 11:34 PM

Great post. When I am getting nervous, I am always eating a lot just to stop the anger – and it helps, but in consequence, getting more kg! Thank you!

FionaBee July 26, 2014 - 9:56 PM

I used to find myself craving sugary foods whenever I was upset or depressed. I got over it by channeling my emotions into physical activity ed whenever I got pissed off( or dumped lol) I just went for a nice long run.

Rob July 13, 2015 - 2:30 PM

I know I did emotional eating after I messed up a budding friendship with a woman and I devoured every sugary food I could get my hands on. I undid a year of hard work in the space of a month or so. By the time I realized what was going on, the damage had already been done.

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