Article authored by Readout Health with editorial oversight from Chief Medical Officer, Naomi Parrella, MD.
We’ve all been there. Devouring chip after chip while studying for a huge test or downing an entire bag of cookies out of boredom, anxiety, or sadness. Eating this way is called “emotional eating” and it happens when people use food as a way to handle their feelings rather than their hunger. Just as your physical body can signal to you when it’s time to eat, your feelings can also influence your appetite, including your drive to eat and even the types of foods you’re more likely to reach for. And when this happens frequently, especially when you’re not aware of it, you’re setting yourself up for potential weight gain and its associated health problems like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as feeling remorse and guilt after realizing how much food you’ve just mindlessly munched on.
Thankfully, there’s a lot you can learn about the connection between your feelings and how you eat so that you can keep your health in check and prevent the unsavory side effects of emotional eating.
The big myth surrounding emotional eating
First let’s dispel a common myth right off the bat, which is that emotional eating is triggered by only negative feelings. Sure, it’s way more common for this to happen. People often turn to food in order to self-medicate sad, anxious, lonely, bored, and stressful feelings. Plus, challenging major life events like a divorce or a death can also bring on emotional eating. But happiness can have a similar effect on our eating behaviors too. If you’ve ever overindulged while celebrating a joyous holiday feast, shared dessert with a loved one during a night out for Valentine’s Day, or polished off an entire tub of buttery popcorn in between laughs at the movies, you already know what it’s like to ride the surge of a feel-good moment using food that tastes good.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that negative emotions are more responsible for driving emotional eating, and in order to better get a handle on them, it pays to know how to spot the differences between when you’re hungry emotionally and hungry physically, understand exactly why you’re so driven to eat even when you’re not physically hungry, and learn what you can do when the countless daily stresses pile up that have you seeking distraction and comfort in food.
The differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger
The first critical step toward extinguishing emotional eating habits in the bud, particularly when your health goals include losing weight and becoming a more mindful eater, is learning how to identify when your body is truly physically hungry and distinguish it from the desire to eat only based on what you’re feeling.
The cues of physical hunger are usually hard to miss: a rumbling in your stomach or even painful hunger pangs caused by contractions of an empty belly. In other words, the sensations of hunger are felt within the body. Physical hunger tends to come on gradually, and when you’re experiencing true physical hunger, you’re pretty open to eating any food that will satisfy it. Also, once you feel full, you’re more apt to end your meal, and once you stop eating, you feel no guilt.
Emotional hunger, on the other hand, isn’t caused by an actual physical need for food. It’s caused by a desire to eat out of habit and as a response to an emotional state, without requiring any physical evidence that it’s needed at that moment. The telltale signs of emotional hunger? It usually comes on suddenly and has you craving specific foods – generally the starchy, fatty, or sugary kind. A full tummy doesn’t prevent you from overeating, and an eating session often leaves you feeling ashamed and guilty.
How negative emotions can drive your desire to eat
So, why do unpleasant feelings cause people to turn to food for comfort?
Evidence shows that emotional eating actually serves a physiological purpose, a purpose which turns out to be a pretty effective – albeit misguided – response to stress.
When stress comes on, most people immediately experience its effects as an unmistakable dip in mood, showing up as overwhelm, worry, fear, and even anger. But behind the scenes, complex interactions between the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are taking place, activating the HPA axis, the communication network between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. This activation releases the hormone cortisol, a key physiological marker of stress, elevating the amount circulating throughout the body.
For some people, acute stress, or a type of stress that’s brought on quickly by a specific event and also can dissipate quickly, can act as an appetite suppressant. That is, the body’s fight-or-flight defense mechanism kicks in and diverts energy and resources away from eating, putting it on hold in order to deal with more urgent matters. But for others, stress, whether acute or longer lasting, drives them to seek out “comfort foods” to feel better.
When cortisol levels are elevated during a stressful period, the brain’s hypothalamus can stimulate appetite by intensifying the desire for calorically dense foods that are high in fat and sugar. Eating these highly palatable foods is shown to actually suppress the release of cortisol, alleviating stress and creating immediate, positive feelings of fulfillment and gratification. This switches on a reward feedback loop in your brain: when you eat delicious food, your brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine in brain reward pathways which then causes the happy memory of the food to become imprinted in your mind. This happens so that you can remember to reach for it the next time you feel stressed. In short, because certain foods are powerful mood boosters, the association between feeling stressed and the stress relief you get when eating appetizing foods is strengthened. And this can drive your body to eat more.
The thing is, the high you get with eating palatable foods, especially sugary ones, usually comes with a low afterwards. What’s worse, this low can lead to intense cravings down the road – and eating a lot of sugary and processed foods make symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression even worse.
There’s another way that stress can influence eating habits. Stress is known to also reduce the body’s sensitivity to leptin, a hormone that helps to regulate and maintain your normal weight. Leptin is what signals to your brain that your body has enough energy stored in your fat cells to carry out all of its necessary metabolic processes. When the body becomes less sensitive to leptin, which is called leptin resistance, you can feel hungry and consume more food even though your body’s fat stores are sufficient.
Overcoming emotional eating: getting down to the root cause
Making the connection between eating and your feelings isn’t always a straight path, but getting to the bottom of exactly what drives your emotional eating is the first step to help you change it. Preventing your emotions from triggering unhealthy food habits ultimately means learning how to deal with your feelings head on.
Next time you’re feeling low and catch yourself making a mad dash for the cookie jar, stop and ask yourself a few questions:
What exactly am I feeling right now? Am I truly hungry? Or am I feeling anxious? Stressed? Sad? Frustrated?
Is my social environment influencing my food choices at the moment?
Am I feeling nostalgic for the past and eating because it reminds me of a happier time?
Am I bored and looking for something to do to fill up my time?
Rather than numbing yourself with food to squash down uncomfortable emotions, acknowledge their presence and take productive action.
Feeling anxious or stressed? Engage in some light exercise outside, close your eyes for a few rounds of deep breathing, call a supportive friend, or listen to soothing music to help regulate your nervous system.
Influenced to eat by your friends or family? Remain focused on your health goals and find creative ways to divert attention from your refrain. Excuse yourself from the room for a moment, strike up a lively conversation, or enjoy a nutritious snack you brought from home.
Eating to reminisce about a happier time? For many, just the texture, warmth, and aroma of certain foods can trigger cherished memories of loved ones or events, leading to overindulging. Instead of turning to food to relive those memories, dig up the photo album and spend time reflecting and recollecting.
Feeling bored? Get outside of yourself – and the kitchen – by going for a walk, catching up on some reading, tackling your spring cleaning, or learning a new skill on YouTube.
Tolerating uncomfortable emotions
Many people are taught to avoid difficult emotions like sadness, anxiety, or anger from a young age. Emotions can be confusing, hard to identify, and judged as shameful. But part of dealing with these emotions in a more productive way is learning to tolerate and accept them. Rather than using food to flee from your feelings, practice more skillful ways of responding to them instead.
What can this look like?
- When a feeling arises, just take a moment and sit with it. Slow down and take some deep breaths. This will allow you the time to name what you’re feeling and help you understand why you’re feeling this way. Feelings are transient. They come and go, like clouds in the sky. Give your feeling the chance to pass on its own.
- Find a soothing activity that calms you, such as spending time in nature, writing in your journal, or meditating. Some quiet time on your own is often all that’s needed to sort through your feelings.
- Reach out for support from friends and family you trust. This can be a powerful way to process difficult emotions and get a fresh perspective on the situation.
- Seek professional help if you need it. Emotions and their underlying causes are complex. You don’t need to tackle them on your own. It can be valuable to enlist a trained mental healthcare provider to help you get to the bottom of what might be causing your emotional hunger.