Emotional eating: Why do we turn to food to cope with our feelings?


by Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN

Jun 2, 2020

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m afraid I’ll binge on that,” “I’m a stress eater,” or “I’m a boredom eater?” Many people view themselves as “emotional” eaters and think they just need more self-control. 

However, what if it isn’t about control or restraint, but instead an unmet need? What does emotional eating even mean and why do people look to food as a way to cope with hard situations? 

Emotional eating explained

Emotional eating is when someone uses food to cope with a range of emotions: boredom, stress, anxiety, depression and excitement among others.  

When you take a minute to think about it, all eating is technically emotional. Humans have emotions and sometimes these emotions are changed or affected by eating. Sometimes, they are unrelated. Food is also involved in most social, cultural and traditional situations. Eating during these situations or celebrations is normal and 100% okay. 

It’s only when someone seeks food for happiness, sadness or comfort all the time that it can become a slippery slope. Just like we don’t expect a toolbox to only hold a wrench, we can’t expect our emotional coping toolbox to only hold emotional eating as a tool.  

Related: Debunking common nutrition myths and misconceptions

Understanding the “why” behind emotional eating

The first step to understanding why you overeat is figuring out whether it is due to an emotional need or restriction. When you place rules on food or don’t eat enough, this can cause an intense need for that food. Same idea when you tell someone they can’t do something and that only motivates them to do it more. This is overeating based upon restriction or a diet. This isn’t always the same as emotional eating. 

Diets and restriction can be traumatic and this can cause emotional overeating, but overeating because you didn’t eat enough is a biological hunger. If you experience hunger based upon undereating or a diet, this is not something you should feel guilty about nor feel like you need willpower to prevent. 

Do you go four or five hours without eating and then suddenly eat a lot? Do you skip meals? Do you restrict yourself from eating desserts or salty snacks?Instead of blaming your “willpower,” consider eating more and varying your food choicesthroughout the day and see if that makes a difference on your need to overeat. 

If you feel you overeat based upon emotion, the first thing you can do is be emotionally aware and understand when it is happening. Keeping note of these instances may help you pinpoint and understand your actions more.

However, do note that this is a time for exploration; not rules, guilt or restriction. Once you understand when, what triggers it, and why, then you can start dealing with whatever emotions you are feeling. 

Coping with emotional eating habits

It is not a good idea to move on to coping mechanisms right away or stop emotional eating cold turkey. Research shows that this causes people to have temporary success, but they eventually fall back into old patterns. 

This scenario is similar to putting a band-aid on a deep cut and expecting it to heal without stiches. In order to move on, you actually have to deal with your emotions head on. Talking to a therapist, pastor, family member or friend that you trust can be a great way to express yourself and figure out your feelings. Then you can move on to understanding your needs and advocating for those needs. 

New coping mechanisms can come once you are sure you’ve figured out the emotional piece — including any negative feelings toward your body image — started working toward zero guilt and restriction, and addressed if you understand your hunger and fullness cues. Remember, emotional eating can always be available when you need to use it as a coping mechanism. However, once you are ready, learning to cope in multiple ways can be more helpful and sustainable long term. 

Food shouldn’t be something that causes you guilt or unhappiness. To start learning how to build a healthier relationship with food, read this.

If you feel like you need help coping with emotional eating, remember that you are not in this alone. Reach out to a registered dietitian or licensed therapist for help. If you are struggling with matters of mental health, talk to a doctor or consult a licensed therapist

About the Author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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