Emotional eating is loosely defined as eating in response to negative or stressful emotions or using food to dull or avoid difficult and unwanted feelings. Most of the times people “eat away their emotions” when they are not even hungry and grab the most convenient snack food around which is most likely unhealthy and packed with sugar, salt, and is high in fats and refined carbohydrates. Eating junk food to blunt one’s emotions can lead one down a slippery slope, first starting with a handful of chips and within minutes, the entire bag of potato chips is devoured and although those unwanted emotional feelings may be gone temporarily, they are sure to come back within time.  Many of us have indulged in sugary or salty sweets in order to distract us from reality and usually we are left with feelings of guilt and even a mild stomachache hours later. Although emotional eating is not considered an eating disorder, emotional eating is linked to weight control issues, diet plans and unresolved emotions.

Emotional eating does work to soothe your feelings temporarily, but it spirals into more problems and issues when done too frequently or when it is the only thing that makes you feel better. Emotional eating can potentially play a serious role in binge eating and bulimia nervosa, two common eating disorders that are characterized by eating large amount of food in a short period of time. In order for binge-eating disorder to be diagnosed an individual must partake in binging episodes on average at least once a week for a three-month duration, the individual must have feelings of marked distress over these binging episodes and have a loss of control over the amount of food they eat. Additionally, at least three of the following factors must be present:

  • Rapid eating
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward
  • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much is being eaten
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM5), defines bulimia nervosa by the five following criteria:

  • Eating excessive amounts of food in a two-hour period (binging) accompanied by feelings of loss of self control
  • Repetitive inappropriate self-induced compensated behaviors such a vomiting, diuretic use, laxative use and extreme exercise (purging) in order to avoid weight gain potentially causes by the binging episodes
  • These behaviors occur at least once a week for at least three months in duration
  • Body shape and weight are the main influencing factors of this binging and purging behavior
  • These behaviors do not occur specifically with anorexia nervosa and these disorders must be completely separated

How hunger hormones may effect emotional eating

Cortisol is a stress hormone in the body that is produced by the adrenal glands and when elevated is known to increase hunger, therefore in times of heightened emotions and stress, our bodies may want to ward off this stress by consuming food. Another hormone associated with appetite regulation is Ghrelin, which rises to stimulate hunger, motivate us to eat, and then falls once a person begins a meal and is full. This decrease in ghrelin acts as a satiety cue, in other words it helps us to feel full and stop eating. Studies show baseline ghrelin levels are lower in emotional eaters and the natural decline of ghrelin after consumption was not apparent among emotional eaters meaning they did not experience satiety or fullness in the same way as their non-emotional eating counterparts.

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.