Who is Affected by Emotional Eating?

It starts out innocently enough, literally. As infants, milk comforts cries and as children, treats reward good behavior. Throughout adolescence, adults encourage emotional eating as a means of feeling better when we’re bored, lonely, sad, or experiencing any less-than-desirable feeling at any given time. Day after day, year after, we learn to associate food with comfort, a sensual physical experience that can always be depended on to provide immediate pleasure. We carry this correlation into adulthood, turning to food for adult reasons. For some, comfort eating is on rare occasions, like after a break-up or losing a job. For others, it’s a more regular experience, like relieving stress after work or filling lonely evenings at home.

A generally accepted definition of emotional eating is eating in response to negative affect or using food to dull or avoid difficult feelings. Most people have experienced this to varying degrees at some point in their lives. Because food can temporarily help to soothe or distract us, emotional eating may become a conditioned response to elevated stress or strong emotions. This can be ingrained within us since early childhood when our parents rewarded us with burgers and fries for a high grade or good behavior and washed away our sorrows with ice cream and cake. “Eating away our emotions” can become a slippery slope, as food should be used to nourish the body and not a way to indulge in temporary emotions, whether they are positive or negative emotions. Studies have shown that individuals who show increased food intake in a negative emotional state also tend to overeat in response to other cues such as a positive emotional state. Emotional eating is known to begin in childhood, peak in adolescence and carry into adulthood and therefore this learned pattern of eating can become problematic and trigger not only an unhealthy relationship with food but also lead to eating disorders such as binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa.

Although emotional eating is not considered an eating disorder it is a characteristic of disordered eating, which is an unhealthy pattern of eating that can lead to diagnoses such as bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

Binge Eating Disorder, also known as compulsive overeating, is characterized by:

  • Eating larger than normal amounts of food at least twice a week for a period of 6 months
  • Rapid, isolated food consumption
  • Inability to control how much is consumed
  • Continuing to eat past the point of feeling full
  • Disgust, guilt and shame over how much has been consumed

Bulimia nervosa, also known as binging and purging disorder, is characterized by:

  • Eating larger than normal amounts of food followed by episodes of purging
  • Purging includes excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic use or the use of diet pills
  • The same emotional feels as binge eating disorder are experienced in bulimia nervosa

Practicing mindful eating to help cope with emotional eating

It is important to develop a routine with meals to help re-calibrate physical hunger and fullness cues, but it is equally important to work on self-monitoring. This is the act of being attentive to your body, your food and your feelings. For example, are you eating because you are bored or because you are hungry? Are you not eating because you are physically satisfied or because you are fearful about a particular food? Dietitians and therapists can help you find ways to monitor behaviors, thoughts, situations and feelings at meals. This is an opportunity to note emotional hunger vs. physical hunger and how your body and mind respond.