Habit Change

What is emotional eating?

Given the current environment with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are likely to be experiencing a higher level of stress and anxiety. These feelings can stem from uncertainty around the future, fear for the health of ourselves and loved ones, and concerns around the economy and our financial security.

On top of this, we’re also adjusting to new routines which involve working from home and limited social interaction.

Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that we’ll be experiencing heightened emotions, which for some of us can mean we’re more likely to turn to food as a source of comfort.

This guide will discuss what emotional eating is, the scientific explanation behind emotional eating, and how this behaviour can turn into a habit over time.

The most important thing to remember is that emotional eating isn’t a result of personal weakness or a lack of willpower. Instead, it’s a combination of adaptive coping mechanisms and biological pathways established by the body to help it survive. Taking the guilt and blame away from emotional eating is the first step to successfully learning to overcome it.

What is emotional eating?

Consciously and unconsciously, we connect feelings with food. This is why it’s so important to think about how and why we eat, rather than just what we eat.

Emotional eating occurs when food is used to soothe or suppress negative emotions such as isolation, anger, boredom, or stress. Often comfort or emotional eating ignores feelings of physical hunger that come from an empty stomach.

The most common foods craved are usually highly processed, such as biscuits, crisps, chocolate, and ice cream. These foods are scientifically engineered to quickly target the pleasure receptors in our brains.

Many people experience emotional eating at one time or another. However, when emotional eating happens frequently, and food becomes the primary coping mechanism for a stressful situation, it can affect both our health and mental wellbeing.

Interestingly, research suggests that women may be more likely to use food as a coping mechanism compared to men, who may be more likely to turn to alcohol or smoking. As a result, weight gain and obesity was found to be related to stress eating in women, but not in men.

It’s also important to distinguish between emotional eating and binge eating disorder (BED), which is a severe mental illness. Overeating every now and again is perfectly normal, however if you’re experiencing binge eating episodes at least once a week for three months, it’s important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.

Key points:

  • Emotional eating happens when we use food as a coping mechanism to soothe or suppress particular emotions
  • The foods that we’re most likely to seek out when upset are those that quickly target the pleasure receptors in our brain, like cake, crisps, and chocolate
  • Research suggests that women may be more likely to experience emotional eating compared to men.

Why do we crave certain foods when upset or stressed?

The biological response

All too often we blame ourselves for giving in to cravings associated with certain emotions, like stress or anxiety. However, there’s actually a scientific explanation that has nothing to do with willpower.

When we’re exposed to a sudden threat, either physically or mentally, our body engages the ‘fight or flight’ response. This causes the release of a hormone known as ‘cortisol’ which is commonly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol then triggers a cascade of events in the body including an increase in blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the muscles.

If we suddenly need to run from a predator, like our ancestors did hundreds of years ago, this response is very useful. However, nowadays, small daily life stressors tend to trigger the full ‘flight or fight’ response, which results in a state of chronic stress and consistently high levels of circulating cortisol.

The role of cortisol in emotional eating

Cortisol can impact our food choices in a number of ways. Firstly, elevated levels of cortisol can result in increased appetite and a greater motivation to eat. This is because the body gets tricked into thinking it’s constantly in a state of ‘fight or flight’. It therefore drives our desire to obtain energy quickly, so we’re able to fuel our body to prepare for action. However, if we don’t end up using this additional energy, we store the excess as fat, which results in weight gain in the long term.

Scientific studies have observed that people who had higher levels of cortisol were more likely to snack throughout the day, eat more food overall, and have higher BMI compared to those with lower levels of cortisol.

Interestingly, research has also found that cortisol may increase the storage of visceral fat, which is the fat that lives under the muscle in our abdomen (a.k.a. stomach fat). Visceral fat is believed to be more dangerous to our health compared to peripheral fat, because it sits around our organs.

Key points:

  • When we experience a stressful situation, our brain signals for the release of the stress hormone cortisol
  • This response has been essential to human survival throughout evolution, however, nowadays small daily life stressors can trigger the full stress response and cause consistently high cortisol levels
  • High cortisol levels can result in an increased appetite, increased motivation to eat, and weight gain.

How emotional eating becomes a habit

Alongside the impacts of cortisol on our appetite and food intake, there are other pathways being laid down in the brain which can reinforce emotional eating behaviours. This means that over time, emotional eating becomes a habit that we do automatically in response to a particular emotion.

One of the key neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) involved in laying down this habit pathway is dopamine, which is directly involved in triggering feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and pleasure.

Certain foods have been shown to encourage dopamine signalling in the brain, in particular, those foods that have been engineered to have the perfect combination of fat, salt, and sugar, like cakes, crisps, chocolate, cakes, and ice cream.

These foods can trick our body into ignoring feelings of satiety or fullness, meaning they’re very hard to stop eating once we’ve started. The release of dopamine as a result of eating these foods triggers a strong feeling of pleasure, which acts like a high and can become addictive. Understandably, when we’re feeling upset or low, we seek out those feelings of pleasure, which our brain has learnt to associate with these foods.

In a TED talk on the topic, psychiatrist Judson Brewer points out that this cycle is built upon context-dependent memory. Our brain remembers what actions make us feel good, such as eating chocolate. Then when we feel bad for whatever reason, our brain says ‘eating chocolate might help’, and we’re driven to eat chocolate. After we repeat this process enough, it becomes an automatic habit.

Key points:

  • Habit pathways laid down in our brain can lead to automatic emotional eating behaviours
  • Certain foods (like cakes, crisps, chocolate, and ice cream) trigger a larger dopamine response in the brain, which leads to heightened feelings of pleasure and euphoria
  • When we’re feeling upset or low, our brain seeks out these feelings of pleasure, which it knows it can get by eating certain foods
  • As we repeat this behaviour over time, turning to these foods when we’re feeling distressed or upset becomes an automatic behaviour

How to overcome emotional eating

It takes a long time for our brain to lay down the habit pathway associated with emotional eating, so understandably it will take us time and practice to undo this.

Take a look at our guides on ‘identifying emotional eating’ and ‘overcoming emotional eating’ if you think you might be experiencing emotional eating and would like some techniques to help overcome it.

If you‘re looking for extra support in helping you manage emotional eating, you might consider joining an online programme. Digital programmes offer the convenience of being able to engage with it from our homes, rather than travelling to a meeting or group.

Second Nature is a 12-week digital habit change programme that focuses heavily on our mindset in relation to weight loss and food choices. Whilst on the programme, you’ll have daily support from a qualified nutritionist or dietitian who can help you develop effective strategies to overcome emotional eating.

When you sign up to the programme, you’ll also be provided with a peer support group, made up of other people who’re starting the journey at the same time as you. Many people find the combination of advice from their health coach and social support from their peer group extremely motivating.

Take home message

  • Emotional eating occurs when food is used to soothe or suppress negative emotions such as isolation, anger, boredom, or stress
  • Most people will experience emotional eating from time to time, however, when it becomes the primary coping mechanism for dealing with stressful situations, our mental and physical wellbeing can be impacted
  • When we become stressed or anxious on a regular basis, our body can have a higher level of circulating cortisol, which is known as the ‘stress hormone’
  • High levels of cortisol have been linked to increased appetite, a greater motivation to eat, weight gain, and a higher BMI
  • We’re also more likely to crave certain foods when stressed, which are usually highly processed, such as biscuits, crisps, chocolate, and ice cream
  • These foods are scientifically engineered to quickly target the pleasure receptors in our brains, which can lead to feelings of pleasure and euphoria
  • Over time, the brain learns to seek out these foods that stimulate pleasure in response to negative feelings, which can turn emotional eating into a habit
  • This habit pathway can take a long time to lay down in the brain, so it’s important to have patience and understanding with ourselves when learning to overcome emotional eating.

Get your free 5 day plan today

Write a response

carey gage
8 June, 2021

Excellent article – very helpful – I call it “panic eating” when I am trapped in a stressful situation and can’t escape – working on it with my coach and other members of my group 👍


Jennie
30 May, 2021

A really good article. I’ve had eating problems for years but l’m working hard to overcome these with the help of all these chats


Alison
22 May, 2021

Mmmmm thought provoking. I would not have said I was an emotional eater, but after reading this I am not so sure. I snack in the evenings and I when I think about it I do tend to want to eat salty and sweet treats and fund it difficult to stop.


GERARDO SILANO
19 May, 2021

Another clarifying and great read. Thank you.


Janet
7 May, 2021

Very interesting as although I am retired and wouldn’t say my life was as stressful as when I was working full time and had 3 x young children I think I have well established habits around eating ‘fight and flight foods’ – this provides insight into how I might aim to reduce this ‘habit’ .


Julie
5 May, 2021

Interesting article. Thanks


Salwa Dafalla
7 April, 2021

Excellent presentation, Thanks you!
Obesity specialist Dietitian


Colette
5 March, 2021

Interesting read. I’ve never been convinced I was an emotional eater but the description of stress and cortisol leading to increased motivation to eat is a bit of a lightbulb moment for me.


Fiona Flood
5 January, 2021

Great article! I’m definitely using food to soothe me in the evenings.


Nadia Mazzone
22 November, 2020

Again very interesting facts especially that when we are stressed the body craves for highly processed foods.


Debra
7 July, 2020

Really good read. It has helped me to understand why I eat the way I do. It’s my bodies response to stress. This really makes sense. Thank you


Jan
12 June, 2020

Good to read a clear explanation of how emotional eating habits easilybecome everyday habits, great to have some simple steps to try to change this into a newer, healthy habit.


Tina Jost
22 April, 2020

Interesting…thank you.


Joan Keating
10 March, 2021

Similar response…..identifying the difference between physical hunger and triggered response by boredom, isolation, stress. Very useful