“I am an emotional eater” is a statement much used to describe their eating patterns. What does it mean to be an emotional eater, what contributes to it, and how can you begin your journey to overcome emotional eating? In this blog, we will talk about what we consider emotional eating, why it is such a commonality, and how we can overcome the patterns of emotionally driven behaviors.
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What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a term used to describe eating in response to emotions. Most of the time, we use this term to express negative feelings, like stress, leading to what feels like uncontrollable eating. However, emotional eating may not only be triggered by what we consider negative emotions. It can be a response to positive and happy emotions as well, for example, birthday parties and baby showers. We don’t often place guilt and shame on ourselves when we eat for celebrations because the underlying emotion does not make us uncomfortable. When we know that we are under a lot of stress or sadness and turn to eating, we increase the amount of guilt and shame we place on ourselves for eating as a response.
People who consider themselves emotional eaters have an opportunity to explore not only why we use food as a coping mechanism for these negative emotions but also why we beat ourselves up for doing it. Emotional eaters tend to have increased feelings of low willpower and restraint, low self-worth, low self-esteem, and poor body image. When we partake in emotional eating with feelings of low self-worth and poor body image, we subconsciously reinforce the mantra, “This is why I am the way I am,” which perpetuates those negative thoughts about ourselves. The cycle leads to more emotional eating because it keeps us under constant stress and negative emotions.
What contributes to emotional eating?
By definition, emotional eating is eating in response to emotions, particularly stressful or negative emotions (van Strien, 2018). But what factors contribute to why some people are emotional eaters while others are not? Let’s discuss some of the various reasons why some folks are more likely to be classified as emotional eaters.
I’ve mentioned this before in previous blogs and on social media. Still, it is always an essential piece: studies demonstrate a person is more likely to regain weight after calorie-restricted diets. History of chronic dieting and food restrictions for weight loss continues to be future predictors of rebound weight gain (van Strien, 2018). When we consider stress a negative emotion that triggers emotional eating, we cannot discount the physical stress we place on our bodies by restricting food intake. Our bodies are brilliant and designed to survive. The body doesn’t know the difference between real food shortage and self-imposed food restriction in the name of dieting. A reduction in calories creates a stress response in the body, similar to being in stressful situations. The feelings of deprivation will cause people to abandon diets quickly and lead to increased eating to compensate for the loss. When under increased mental stress on top of the physical strain, dieters tend to eat more food in response to emotions than non-dieters (van Strien, 2018). Stress is stress, mental or physical.
Poor Interceptive Awareness
Interceptive what? Interoceptive awareness is “the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond appropriately to the patterns of internal signals (Craig, 2015)”. Essentially, we are disconnected from ourselves. A better connection with our internal signals can lead to more emotional regulation. Dieting is one aspect that contributes to poor interoceptive awareness because it causes us to stop listening to our body’s internal cues (i.e., hunger, fullness, etc.) to fit into the dieting mold we built for ourselves. We become numb to feelings of hunger and satiety, leading to being able to bypass these internal signals for emotional eating.
Other contributors to poor interoceptive awareness come from parental food rules such as we must clean our plates before (insert reward here). Although these practices may have stemmed from positive intentions (for example, eliminating food waste – think of the poor starving children of the world, right?), they teach us that our fullness cues are unimportant and we must eat past comfort. People carry this behavior into their adult lives, feeling obligated to eat wherever food is offered or clean their plates regardless of internal satiety. Whatever the reason, learning to rebuild self-trust and the ability to listen to your body is an essential factor for overall wellness.
The topic of emotional dysregulation extends far beyond this blog. Regarding emotional eating, emotional dysregulation can look like the inability to identify and feel feelings, suppress them, or use inappropriate mechanisms to adapt, avoid, or cope with them, like eating (van Strien, 2018). When we lack the tools and resources to learn how to identify emotions and regulate them, we turn to food to control these negative emotions by providing us with a sense of comfort. Studies identify correlations between increased psychological stress and emotional dysregulation; the more stress we are under the easier it is to ignore and suppress, and feel like we lose control over our abilities to be resilient and adaptive (Guerrini et al., 2021). We’ll talk more about emotional regulation in upcoming blogs.
Increased stress response
Of course, an increased stress response is usually correlated with emotional eating. However, eating as a response to stress isn’t a typical classification of HPA activity. During fight or flight, the body's natural reaction is to put all effort into running or avoiding the threat, resulting in hyperactivation of the HPA axis. Hyperactivity “typically” means not eating because our digestive system is not functioning optimally. Why would we be digesting when running from a theoretical tiger, right? However, studies are finding what is considered a reversal of the HPA axis in response to stress, leading to increased appetite in combination with sluggish digestive systems. Hello, tummy troubles (another fascinating topic to come). Some researchers speculate this lowered HPA axis functioning due to stress explains why emotional eaters use food to ‘medicate’ their negative emotions (van Strien, 2018).
Three steps to overcome emotional eating
Emotional eating is a complex topic; it is hard to isolate the exact steps needed to find balance in our lives. However, if we look at some factors that contribute to emotional eating, we can begin to see the patterns and learn how to identify and address the imbalances in our lives.
Here are three steps we can take today:
Dieting is a form of stress, mentally and physically. Dietary restrictions can lead to various physical stressors. However, the psychological stress that comes with the perception of low self-worth and body image tends to lead to chronic dieting mimics cortisol response. One particular study demonstrated the effects of low-calorie diets, like the 1200 calories some companies like to promote, contributing to increased cortisol levels (Tomiyama et al., 2010).
Practice Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating concepts help us connect with our bodies to be more in-tune with our interoceptive awareness. By learning how to practice self-care (not bubble baths and candles), sit with your feelings, and use stress management techniques that work for you, you can begin to break away from the chains that keep us attached to using food to deal with emotions. Self-care practices, such as nourishment and sleep, can provide clarity and connection to our bodies so we can listen to emotional cues.
Sitting with our feelings is a process that we have been conditioned not to do. Avoid, ignore, or distract are tools we have commonly used when we experience uncomfortable waves of emotions. We often use these negative responses for positive emotions when we feel we have to shrink ourselves into smaller boxes. It is ok to use distraction sometimes when the initial impact of the emotion is too much, but we want to sit with and feel the feelings to process them and allow them to flow from the body—more on trapped emotions to come.
Rest and Digest
We cannot let stress control our lives, but we also know stress is something we cannot eliminate. How we manage stress is essential. Stress management techniques sound so overwhelming at times. Most people immediately jump to meditation and deep breathing, which are lovely for managing stress. Though, there are other options to help with stress management that may fit your lifestyle better and are easier to accommodate your needs. Getting creative, dancing or other forms of movement, journaling, and listening to music are just a few examples of ways we can balance stress in our lives.
The goal is to get our bodies out of constant fight or flight and into what we can rest and digest. When we can be in a state of relaxation, our bodies can do what they are designed to do. We can balance hormones, digest our food, expand cognitive functioning, improve gastrointestinal health, and more when managing our stress. Rest and digest mode allows us to respond to stress triggers more efficiently while maintaining an even keel and listening to our bodies' needs simultaneously.
Final thoughts on Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is a complex topic and isn’t a morally wrong thing to do. You are not a bad person if you reach for comfort food when stressed or emotional. We can find balance in our eating by rebuilding trust in our bodies, reducing the impact of stress, and intentionally processing emotions and stress triggers as they arise. We haven’t been taught the tools of emotional regulation and intuitive eating, which is no fault of our own. However, we can learn new concepts and implement these practices into our lives starting today to find the balance we desire.
If you are interested in learning more about stress management techniques (from meditation and tapping to deep breathing and vasovagal toning), listening to your body, practicing self-compassion, and becoming an intuitive eater, book your free one-on-one discovery call now for one of my nutritional coaching packages.
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Craig A. D. (2015). How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 10.1515/9781400852727
Guerrini Usubini, A., Cattivelli, R., Varallo, G., Castelnuovo, G., Molinari, E., Giusti, E. M., Pietrabissa, G., Manari, T., Filosa, M., Franceschini, C., & Musetti, A. (2021). The Relationship between Psychological Distress during the Second Wave Lockdown of COVID-19 and Emotional Eating in Italian Young Adults: The Mediating Role of Emotional Dysregulation. Journal of personalized medicine, 11(6), 569. https://doi.org/10.3390/jpm11060569
Price, C. J., & Hooven, C. (2018). Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Frontiers in psychology, 9, 798. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00798
Tomiyama, A. J., Mann, T., Vinas, D., Hunger, J. M., Dejager, J., & Taylor, S. E. (2010). Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosomatic medicine, 72(4), 357–364. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
van Strien T. (2018). Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Current diabetes reports, 18(6), 35. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-018-1000-x