EMOTIONAL EATING: When It Becomes Problematic And What To Do About It

Dr. Lindsey King
October 2022

Let’s begin with a quick memory exercise. I want you to imagine yourself back in graduate school. The looming deadlines of papers and essays to write, reading multiple chapters every night, studying for exams, preparing for internship interviews, and the list goes on. Do you remember the stress/anxiety you felt during those years? Researchers found a high prevalence of depression and anxiety among graduate students (1,2). I remember orientation and the professors speaking to myself and my cohort members about the demands of graduate school and the importance of self-care. However, those of us in the mental health field understand how overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression sometimes result in using coping mechanisms versus coping skills or self-care. The anxiety we felt in graduate school may have lessened but burnout is widespread in the mental health field (3,4). A common coping mechanism for many people, even those of us with graduate degrees, is emotional eating.

The coping mechanism of emotional eating is used by twenty-seven percent of adults when they feel stressed (5). Where is the line between occasional emotional eating and something more dysfunctional such as compulsive overeating and/or binge-eating? When someone uses food for emotional purposes, they tend to overeat as they are not eating for physical hunger. Therefore, they do not pay attention to satiety or fullness cues. Occasional overeating or emotional eating is not viewed as an eating disorder. The feeling that you are overeating and are unable to stop yourself (a sense of loss of control) is a key feature of binge eating disorder (6). Further, if you occasionally overeat or emotionally eat, it’s usually situational. Conversely, binge-eating is compulsive and happens on a regular basis, at least 1 time per week for 3 months (6). Individuals who struggle with compulsive overeating or binge-eating do so for emotional reasons (6). This being the case, their food choices may be different than if they were eating for physical hunger.

An individual eating for emotional purposes will usually choose refined carbohydrates, processed, or fast foods. For example, when I am overwhelmed by stress at work, my brain does not tell me to go home and eat a big bowl of broccoli. Oh, no. I want pizza, chips, chocolate, pasta, candy, etc. The issue with these food choices is that they are considered inflammatory foods (7,8). Inflammatory foods increase inflammation throughout the body (7,8). They have been correlated to psychological issues, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, trauma-related issues, insomnia, and fatigue, to name a few (7,8). They have also been correlated to increased struggles with physical health issues, such as arthritis, headaches, general aches and pains, gastrointestinal distress, and more (7,8). Researchers found that what goes on in our gut impacts our mood through the vagus nerve (8). Therefore, when we choose foods that are inflammatory, we increase the possibility of continued struggles with psychological and physical distress (7,8). What can you do decrease this habit of turning to food for emotional purposes?

There are several ways to decrease the habit of emotional eating. Most of us are familiar with many different types of self-care or coping skills. I recommend developing a “stress management plan.” Write out a list of your go-to coping skills that assist with decreasing stress or low mood. Additionally, as discussed earlier, it is important to understand how nutrition affects mood. There are foods that decrease anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and assist with memory and focus (7, 8). These foods include protein (lean meats, eggs, tofu), complex carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables), and healthy fats (nuts and beans) (7,8). Therefore, not only is it important to focus on our self-care or coping skills, but it is also just as important to develop a healthy nutrition routine for optimal stress management. As noted above, there is a difference between occasional emotional eating/overeating and compulsive overeating or binge-eating. If you find that you are unable to decrease emotional eating or the amount of food you consume when you are emotionally eating, it may be time to seek further professional guidance (9).

Enjoy this playlist when stressed, overwhelmed or feeling the need to emotionally eat.

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