Emotional Eating
We often eat — or engage in binge eating — for the pleasure it gives, not for reasons of survival. Image Credit: Pexels


  • Emotional eating is remarkably common.
  • Know what experts say and when it becomes a problem.
  • Know the healthier alternatives to emotional eating.

Do you eat even when you’re not hungry? Many of us eat for emotional reasons. One study suggests that binge eating is often motivated by what the brain perceives as a reward, not by the actual need of our body’s cells to change food into energy.

It’s remarkably common, affects both males and females, and is unrelated to your body mass index (BMI, more on this later).

Here’s how it happens: For example, you go to a birthday party or some gathering involving food. You have a piece of cake or some sweet delights.


And you’re having that cake as a way to celebrate with your friend, your family, or the special occasion it is.

You’re not eating that cake because you are biologically hungry; you’re eating that cake as a way to celebrate. You’re having it for an emotional reason.

190821 eating cake
We learn from a very young age that food, and eating, is a very effective way of soothing an emotion.

This is not to suggest that we should never eat for emotional reasons. But it’s important that when you do eat for emotional reasons, you are choosing it — instead of it just happening to you. And since you chose it, you should enjoy it.

This is not necessarily the type of emotional eating that this article is about.

What exactly is emotional eating?

“It is generally considered eating in response to negative emotions,” David Creel, PhD, RD, a psychologist and registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic, told Gulf News. He noted, however, that emotional eating does not have a universally-accepted definition.

In general, emotional eating is when we eat not to solve biological hunger, but to help soothe an emotion. We’re not actually hungry for food — we are looking to take the edge off some type of emotion.

Amotional eating 10 things to know
Image Credit: Gulf News | Vijith Pulikkal

This way, we’re looking to soothe ourselves. This way, we hope to ease something unpleasant or to sidestep an emotion that we don’t particularly want to be with.

Is emotional eating a psychological problem?

No. For so many people, when you’re younger — or you’re a baby — when you’re upset and you’re crying, your mother gives you a bottle and feeds you. Or your mother puts you on her breast, to breast-feed you.

So, if you are an emotional eater, you are not crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you. It makes so much perfect sense, especially for a child.

Life is full of stress — at home, at work. We face financial and other issues. This leads to an increase of the cortisone hormone, which raises appetite — especially for food containing sugar, junk and fast food, chocolates and sweets.

- Dr. Ehab Hassan Makki, homeopathic practitioner, Canadian Medical Centre Abu Dhabi

Why is it a problem?

The situation changes when we reach adulthood. Being an emotional or binge eater as an adult simply doesn't benefit you any longer. Therefore, a fuller comprehension of this phenomenon is necessary. This will start to change the way we think about eating.

The sooner we realise and understand it, the better equipped we are to handle it. Awareness is the first step in finding a solution to an emotion-focused coping strategy.

We learn from a very young age that food, and eating, is a very effective way of salving for and soothing an emotion. If, as an adult, you’re an emotional eater, or binge eater, it just doesn’t serve you anymore.

Why do we engage in emotional eating?

One trigger: stress.

Dr. Ehab Hassan Makki, a homeopathic practitioner at Canadian Medical Centre Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News: “Life is full of stress — at home, at work. We face financial and other issues. This leads to an increase of the cortisone hormone, which raises appetite — specially for food containing sugar, junk and fast food, chocolates and sweets.”

While different people react differently to the same stressors, stress persists for some individuals, he pointed out.

 In the research titled "The role of palatable food and hunger as trigger factors in an animal model of stress-induced binge eating”, the team led by Mary Hagan and published in 2003 in the American Psychological Association, noted: “Stress magnified this hunger-induced overeating by increasing highly palatable food (HPF) intake to 137 per cent of restriction-only rats.”

"These effects suggest that binge eating in this model is motivated by reward, not metabolic need, and parallels observations of binge triggers described in clinical binge-eating disorders,” the team wrote.

Try to stop emotional eating... (avoid) excessive consumption of soft drinks, which has been associated with metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular risk.

- Dr. Maha Shahin, Clinical Nutrition Consultant, Allurion Dietician Board

Dr. Maha Shahin, Clinical Nutrition Consultant, Allurion Dietician Board, said people should listen to their bodies for signs of satiety and stop eating after feeling full.

"Try to stop emotional eating... (avoid) excessive consumption of soft drinks, which has been associated with metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular risk."

Overall, higher intake of sweetened beverages increases average daily calorie intake, which then leads to weight gain, she said.

In a 2006 study, titled "Emotional overeating and its associations with eating disorder psychopathology among overweight patients with binge eating disorder", a team led by Robin M Masheb of Department of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine found significant correlations between emotional overeating and binge frequency, eating disorder features, and depression, but was not related to BMI or gender.

Emotional eating is of particular concern for people with excess weight. (It) can worsen the condition and increase risks for developing or worsening health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and joint pain.

- David Creel, PhD, RD, psychologist and registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic

When does emotional eating become a problem? 

Emotional eating is often used as a pleasurable distraction or comfort related to stressors. 

Creel told Gulf News: “Emotional eating is of particular concern for people with excess weight. (It) can worsen the condition and increase risks for developing or worsening health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and joint pain.”

Even among those with normal weight, emotional eating can be problematic.

Emotional eating is often characterised by eating calorie-dense, processed foods that are often high in sugar and fat, he said.

“Consuming these foods regularly — and in large quantities — can worsen health status no matter what someone weighs,” he said.

If eating is a stress-buster, it should be good, right?

“Compared to other unhealthy coping mechanisms (drug/alcohol use, compulsive shopping) eating is relatively cheap, convenient, and socially acceptable,” said Creel.

“But anything that we use repeatedly to distract ourselves from stressful situations may, in the end, make things worse. Not only can we create additional problems (weight gain, feeling guilty, poor sleep if eating late at night), we prevent ourselves from properly coping with the situation,” said Dr Creel.

“Although distraction from our problems can serve a purpose in the short-term, many situations need to be processed effectively. Therefore, emotional eating gets in the way of problem solving and emotion-focused coping.”

What is the connection between emotional eating and binge eating?

Dr. Creel explains: “Emotional eating can also lead to a condition called ‘Binge Eating Disorder’ (BED), which is characterised by eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling a lack of control when eating.

“Other symptoms sometimes include eating rapidly, feeling uncomfortably full, feeling guilt/depression/disgust, eating large amounts when not hungry, eating alone due to shame, or hiding food. This type of eating causes a lot of distress and interferes with overall functioning.”

What is a food journal?
One very effective strategy to better understand eating habits and triggers is to keep a food journal.

Why is a journal helpful? The food journal should be kept in a nonjudgmental way, with a spirit of curiosity.

By tracking food and emotions at the time of eating, people can better understand their relationship with food.

What are the healthier alternatives?

What are some other healthier distractions instead of having food as a diversion from unpleasant stressors? Alternative coping mechanisms are crucial. Dr. Creel suggest people should look at ways they can problem-solve their situation.

People can look for ways to find peace in the midst of their predicament if there is no immediate means to resolve it (stressors may include the loss of a loved one, a job, or financial circumstances that won't alter overnight).

Distraction/comforting coping mechanisms may include:

  • Reading
  • Playing with a pet
  • Planning a trip
  • Crocheting, knitting
  • Doing a puzzle
  • Taking a bath
  • Playing a game
  • Lighting a candle
  • Getting a massage

Calming ourselves can be accomplished by:

  • Being in nature (or gardening)
  • Physical activity
  • Deep breathing
  • Talking about it
  • Spiritual practices
  • Talking to a professional 
  • Helping others with similar challenges
  • Keeping a gratitude journal

Is emotional eating considered a trap/addiction?

“Normally," Dr. Makki said, "when we stressed for a long period with the feeling of anger, loneliness, boredom, injustice, etc — this could eventually lead to depression, frustration, chronic anxiety, fear, feeling of insecurity."

“Here, the body starts to produce large amounts of cortisol. This will then increase the appetite for food containing sugar, junk food and other. These sorts of food will surely provide relief, but this is only temporary. Eventually, it becomes a cycle. So when something happens that make you unhappy, that increases your urge for unhealthy food — this cycle could lead to addiction and develop condition called ‘leptin resistance’,” he added.

"It means failure to control appetite — which leads to overeating, which leads to the accumulation of fats in the abdomen and other parts of the body, causing one to be overweight and obese, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease, pre-diabetes type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, osteoarthritis, etc,” Dr Makki added.

At what point do we (those who fall into this trap) need help?

Dr Makki said that those who fall into this “trap” need help in the following areas:

  • Increased awareness about stress and food.
  • Learn how to better cope with stress.
  • When stressed, avoid food with trans food, junk, sugar.
  • Take food rich with fiber, protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Increase physical activity and exercise.
  • Practice yoga.

5 takeaways: Best way to deal with emotional eating

When we consider the food, specially food containing sugar, fast food, chocolate, etc. as stress reliever, that’s one sign we're eating emotionaly.

A few steps to counter it:

First: Recognise that it is happening. Some people are not fully aware because some emotional eating can be mindless. It may take the form of "grazing" (eat ingsmall portions of food throughout the day) or eating a bit more at meals.

Second: Check your weight regularly. People who have a routine of checking their weight regularly can observe a trend in the wrong direction and then do a course-correction early.

Third: Eat healthy, hydrate properly. One advice Dr. Shahin gives: "Avoid sweetened drinks, replace them with unsweetened fresh juices, and increase your daily water intake."

Fourth: Find other coping mechanisms. There are ways to cope with stressful situations (which we sometimes find overwhelming) besides eating, Dr. Makki explains. Look for healthier alternatives (drink more water, do own-weight exercises, stretch, take regular walks, do yoga/meditation, practice deep breathing, relaxation techniques, music, aromatherapy, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, etc).

Fifth: Address the thing/situation that's causing the stress. It is best to find ways to deal with the underlying issue that is causing the stress, rather than masking it with food.