Emotional Eating

Have you fallen into the trap of emotional eating? I think many of us could raise our hand and say, ‘I’ve been there’! Everybody has highs and lows and different coping mechanisms, but it’s safe to say that our mood can influence our diet and our eating behaviours. Personal relationships with food are often complex; obviously we consume food to satisfy our hunger and for enjoyment, but many people turn to food to ease negative or difficult emotions - resulting in (you guessed it) emotional eating! Emotional eating is a recognised risk factor for obesity and with an estimated 52% of adults being obese or overweight it’s definitely worth discussing and tackling before embarking on a weight loss journey (1). Commonly, the foods consumed during emotional eating are highly palatable and calorie dense due to their high sugar and fat contents (2). Sugary and sweet tasting foods are associated with the reward areas of the brain so it’s not surprising that we crave sugary foods when we’re feeling down (1). Sugar and fat have also been associated with increased dopamine production – dopamine being our happy hormone (3). However, though these foods may alleviate those difficult emotions in the moment, it’s only a short-term fix. In fact, in the long term we’re often left feeling worse than before by creating a negative cycle of unhealthy eating behaviours and feelings of guilt (4).

Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between physical hunger and psychological hunger, so let’s talk about the characteristics of psychological hunger. Emotional, or psychological hunger often occurs more abruptly, it comes on suddenly and you have an overwhelming urge to eat. You only crave certain foods, they are often comfort foods that are high in sugar and fat, as mentioned before. You may continue to eat after the sensation of fullness, you may not be satisfied even though your stomach is full. Finally, emotional eating is often followed by feelings of guilt, regret, or shame (5). Based on this, try to identify the difference between physical and emotional of hunger when they hit you, and you’ll be off to a good start! There are various feelings that can trigger emotional eating: sadness, anger, stress, boredom. However, interestingly a study found that, of all emotions, boredom is the biggest culprit for emotional eating (6).

Boredom can cause feeling of emptiness and if you feel unfulfilled, food can be a way to fill your time and occupy your mind. At the time of eating, it distracts you from your dissatisfaction and the feeling of lacking purpose. Conversely, stress can impact your hormones levels, increasing the production of cortisol (our stress hormone). Cortisol has been found to increase calorie intake, due to increased cravings foods that are high in fat and sugar (7).

Some final tips to tackle emotional eating:

-Try to separate your hunger cues… is it physical or emotional hunger causing your cravings? Ask yourself if you are you actually hungry. If not, try to distract yourself with work or a hobby!
-Practice mindful eating – take your time when eating, properly chew and taste your food.
-Try choosing a healthier alternative to those calorie dense foods. Snack on a piece of fruit or some nuts, then wait ten minutes before giving into your cravings.
-Learn to accept your emotions… you’re allowed to feel down sometimes! If you’re feeling overwhelmed with a difficult emotion, try writing in a journal.
-Ask for help – if you’re struggling with emotional eating, either speaking to a professional, a friend or a family member can give you the support you need!


(1)WHO (2021) Obesity and Overweight. Available at - https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
(2)Psychiatry research271
(3)The Journal of nutrition144
(4)Recent Studies in Health Sciences
(5)Journal of Child and Family Studies28
(6)Health psychology31
(7)Journal of Business Research100


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