Emotional eating is different from “hunger” in a way that the act of eating is driven by the connection between emotion and desire to eat as means to cope with states of anxiety, depressive moods, anger, and other negative emotions. Eating becomes a regulation strategy to deal with uncomfortable negative moods and attempt stress tolerance. There are significant, easy to spot differences between emotional and physical hunger. Emotional hunger occurs suddenly, it is not gradual. At the same time, emotional hunger tends to be specific in its cravings, in comparison to physical hunger where any type of food sounds appealing. It is also common to see an increase in food consumption related to emotional hunger vs. physical hunger, where you reach the point of “full” quicker. Lastly, there are feelings of shame and guilt associated with emotional hunger that are rarely present with the alternative.
The Emotional eating theory, first developed by Bruch (1973) and Slochower (1983), suggests two hypotheses. First, that negative emotions are directly related to the motivation to eat, also known as food cravings, which consequently leads to more eating. The second assumption is that eating reduces the intensity of negative feelings. It is also conceivable to refer back to the Behaviorists and understand emotional eating as a form of classical conditioning, where the response (the craving) is followed by an eating response that is also reinforced by the reduced intensity of negative feelings. Other theories have emerged, such as the one by Heatherton and Baumeister (1991) who suggest that emotional eating is an attempt to escape from negative self-awareness. Another suggestion is that the consumption of food increases the experience of positive emotions because of the food quality and the joy of eating.
Emotion regulation is related to both physical and mental health. What studies have found, is that individuals who suppress the expression of negative emotions eat more comfort foods in comparison to individuals who reappraised negative emotions or those who expressed emotions spontaneously. When you adopt a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy, increased eating happens, sometimes leading to dysfunctional eating patterns and possible psychopathology.
Assessments to spot an emotional eater aim to identify if individuals are eating during times of stress; if they eat even when they are full; if there is an increase in positive emotions after eating; if food is used as a reward, or as means to sooth anxiety or depressive feelings; and if food is used as a safe zone or escape.
The causes for this phenomenon are unknown, and are hypothesized according to different theories in psychology. For example, Behaviorists may suggest Modeling as a justification for emotional eating. This is, an individual eats to cope with negative feelings because they grew up watching their parents don the exact same, instead of processing and discussing u comfortable emotions. On the other hand, psychoanalytic theories this behavior is based on early feeding experiences and a fixation in the oral stage of development. The attachment theory, supported by Bruch in 1973, claims that emotional eating derives from the relationship with the caregiver. If the child is given food every time the child is in distress and not when they are hungry, learn to eat as means to self sooth.
Despite different theories, triggers for this maladaptive behavior are consistent and identifiable, such as stress, repressing or suppressing emotions, boredom or an attempt to fulfill an emptiness inside, childhood habits, as supported by theories previously identified, and social influences. The latter, it is a concept reinforced by culture, where gatherings revolve around food consumption and overindulgence.
To process of overcoming emotional eating is done via two approaches. One, in the form of solution focused approaches, and practical activities to adapt immediately. The second, by addressing therapy to heal the causes related to negative emotions that lead to emotional eating.
The first step is to recognize patterns of emotional eating and accept this as a pattern in your life. The second step is to identify specific triggers in your life that lead to maladaptive behaviors of eating. Are there specific negative emotions? A particular person or group of people that trigger that behavior? Maybe specific social interactions, time of the day, or time of year, such as the holidays? Or is it boredom? Once the specific triggers are identified, the emotions attached to them can be delineated and recognized. The next step is to turn these feelings into something positive by substitution techniques. To have an alternative on hand every time the body (and the mind) calls for food. Some techniques that have been empirically validated include light physical activity, deep breathing, reliving the situation, expressive writing, mindfulness meditation, grounding techniques, or progressive muscle relaxation. To find alternative rewards, as means to reprogram positive feelings to other things and not just food. On the other hand, different types of diets is an approach with very little validation and scientific support to address emotional eating.
Emotional eating is a challenging and complex topic. It needs to be addressed on a multi-level approach, and should be done with professional help when possible. To understand that the habit and the idea of emotional eating, is very difficult to eliminate completely, as it is rooted in our unconscious part of the mind, almost as an involuntary type of behavior, and constantly rewarded by culture, social gatherings, media, and childhood habits and routines. The focus is balance, find a sustainable way to reach out for positive emotions and self-regulation, and while these coping skills can be easily accessed, it is equally important to address the underlying causes of this behavior.
Bruch, H. (1973). Eating disorders. Obesity, anorexia nervosa and the person within. New York: Basic.
Evers, C., Marijn Stok, F., & de Ridder, D. T. (2010). Feeding your feelings: Emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), 792-804.
Katterman, S. N., Kleinman, B. M., Hood, M. M., Nackers, L. M., & Corsica, J. A. (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review. Eating behaviors, 15(2), 197-204.
Macht, M., & Simons, G. (2011). Emotional eating. In Emotion regulation and well-being (pp. 281-295). Springer, New York, NY.
Smith, M., Segal, J., & R. S. (2019, October). Emotional Eating. Retrieved August 02, 2020, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm
Stark, M. L. K. (2001). Emotional eating and eating disorder psychopathology. Eating Disorders, 9(3), 251-259.