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Habit Change

What is emotional eating?

Tamara Willner
Written by

Tamara Willner

Medically reviewed by

Fiona Moncrieff

6 min read
Last updated April 2024

Emotional eating occurs when food soothes or suppresses 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.

Essentially, emotional eating is a physical response to an unmet psychological need.

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.

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 well-being.

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 were 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.
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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 increased blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the muscles.

If we suddenly need to run from a predator, as 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 drives our desire to obtain energy quickly, so we can 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 with higher cortisol levels were more likely to snack throughout the day, eat more food overall, and have higher BMI compared to those with lower cortisol levels.

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, other pathways are laid down in the brain that 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 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.
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Write a response

Ololade Erinle

2 January, 2022

Educating article


15 March, 2022

Hi Ololade,

Thanks for your comment, so pleased you found this guide helpful!

If you’d like to learn more about our programme, you can take our health quiz here, or email with any questions 🙂


30 January, 2022

Hi Ololade,

So pleased you’ve found this guide helpful 😊

Our programme provides extensive guidance around identifying and overcoming emotional eating. You’ll also have the support of a health coach who is there to guide and motivate you throughout your programme.

If you’d like to learn more about the Second Nature programme, you can take our health quiz here, or email with any questions 😊

Linda Austin

5 September, 2021

Interesting. I think I definitely eat for pleasure especially in the evenings. I would never have considered myself as an emotional eater. Maybe!


7 September, 2021

Hi Linda,

Pleased you’ve found this guide interesting, thanks for your comment 🙂

Our programme explores emotional eating and triggers in depth. If you’d like to learn more, you can take our health quiz here.

Pauline mills

22 August, 2021

I have a friend who eats all these things all the time but is so thin, I would be twice the size I am if I did that, why is that?

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 👍


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


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.


19 May, 2021

Another clarifying and great read. Thank you.


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’ .


5 May, 2021

Interesting article. Thanks

Salwa Dafalla

7 April, 2021

Excellent presentation, Thanks you!
Obesity specialist Dietitian


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.


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


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

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