The Science behind Emotional Eating

Most of us have probably been there… exam stress that gets you reaching for the closest packet of chocolate biscuits or that break up that ends with a date night with your favourite pot of cookie dough ice cream. ‘Emotional eating’ is a term used to explain when we use food to soothe an emotional response such as stress, anger, hurt and even boredom. It is extremely common to turn to food when we experience certain emotions but why?

Why do we emotionally eat?

Your ‘why’ can often be different to someone else’s ‘why’ but one of the main reasons that food is used as a coping mechanism in stressful times is that highly palatable foods (like the sugary, fatty foods we’re often probably drawn to) generally make us feel great whilst we are eating them. Not only can eating food like this give us a hit of dopamine (our reward hormone), but eating in general has been found to release an ‘opioid’ into the brain which is the active ingredient of drugs such as cocaine and heroin (1). So the calming, satisfying effect you feel when you eat is very real!

Other potential reason why some people are more prone to emotional eating then others is that some people with chronic stress develop a ‘dampened’ HPA axis response. What this means is that if someone is under chronic stress for a long period of time, their stress response no longer reacts to adrenaline as much as it should and cortisol (our stress hormone) is released. Whereas adrenaline usually lowers hunger as the ‘fight or flight’ response doesn’t really want to prioritise digestion is an emergency, cortisol on the other hand has been shown to increase feelings of hunger, especially towards sugary or fatty foods (2).

So is emotional eating bad?

Generally no! Eating when emotional can be a totally acceptable method to make yourself feel better when times get tough but you may want to ask yourself several questions when you are turning to food to make sure that you have your best interests at heart:

  1. Are you REALLY making the most out of the food you are eating?

If your stood at the fridge, eating as quickly as you can or munching through foods mindlessly whilst watching the tv, chances are you aren’t really getting the best ‘bang for your buck’. If possible, why not try and be really mindful of your food as you eat it; make sure you sit down, take away distractions and really enjoy all of the flavours and textures of the food for maximum pleasure.

2. Are you eating enough throughout the day?

Sometimes ‘emotional eating’ might not be quite as emotional as we think. In some people, it is actually restriction and dieting throughout the day that can lead to a one way ticket to evening binges. The reason for this is because when we under-eat, our bodies cannot distinguish between these self-imposed food restrictions and genuine food shortages (3). The result of this is that the metabolic rate is slowed down and hunger and appetite signals are increased meaning that no matter how ‘good’ you try to be, chances are that survival instinct is directing you towards the biscuit jar.

What makes it worse is that emotional eating can often be demonised by ‘diet culture’ which puts it in a negative light, further adding to the guilt, anger and stress. Bit of a continuous loop of stress right?

If this sounds like something you struggle with, why not try to start asking questions about whether these ‘diet culture’ messages are justified and whether the diet mentality is doing you more harm than good. Looking into intuitive eating techniques and learning more about your own hunger and fullness signals might be a really powerful way of shifting your mindset and creating a more harmonious relationship with food.

3. What need has the eating met?

Maybe it was that the eating helped you to feel less stressed or it brightened up a really boring Friday evening where you had no plans. Becoming more aware of your emotions in a non- judgemental way is a really great way to start learning about any patterns in your behaviour when it comes to eating. Although generally interesting to learn about, you potentially might notice that eating wasn’t successful in meeting your need in every occasion and other tactics might work better for you next time.

4. Are there other coping strategies in your toolbox?

As I have already mentioned, eating can be a really soothing experience when you are feeling stressed but generally it is great to have a variety of different things you can turn to so you’re not always relying on one thing. We are often relaxed by different things so this is the fun part trying to find out what works for you! It could be a nice bubble bath, a 10 minute meditation or even reading your favourite magazine in your pyjamas! The more options you have to turn to, the more likely you can halt negative emotions in their tracks before they get harder to handle.

So overall, emotional eating can play a part in our self-care routine and as food can be an extremely pleasurable, it is something we should learn to appreciate fully. It is only really when emotional eating is the only thing you turn to in stressful times that you might start having issues… Like anything, moderation is key so figure out a variety of ways to getting that dopamine hit and when you are turning to food, make sure you enjoy every last bite!

  1. Jetro J. Tuulari, Lauri Tuominen, Femke E. de Boer, Jussi Hirvonen, Semi Helin, Pirjo Nuutila, Lauri Nummenmaa. Feeding Releases Endogenous Opioids in HumansThe Journal of Neuroscience, 2017; 37 (34): 8284 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0976-17.2017
  2. Gluck ME, Geliebter A, Hung J, Yahav E. Cortisol, Hunger, and desire to binge eat following a cold stress test in women with binge eating disorder. Psychosom Med. 2004;66:876–81.
  3. Goldsmith R, Joanisse D, Gallagher D, Pavlov K, Shamoon E, Leibel RL, et al. Effects of experimental weight perturbation on skeletal work efficiency, fuel utilization, and biochemistry in human subjects. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010;298:R79–88.