Emotional eating is an unhealthy coping mechanism used to manage difficult emotions or stressful situations.
It typically involves eating large amounts of food, especially unhealthy foods, in response to negative emotions.
Coping skills such as mindful eating can help manage emotional eating. In some cases, speaking with a mental health professional can help develop healthier ways of managing emotions.
Have you ever had an experience where you were stressed, anxious, sad, hurt, frustrated, or overwhelmed and found yourself turning to food—in particular salty, sugary, carby foods—to feel better? Most everyone has probably used food to cope with emotions in the past. The APA reported that 38% of adults have overeaten or eaten unhealthy food within the past month due to stress. This is emotional eating.
Read on to learn more about what emotional eating is, coping strategies, and when to speak with a healthcare provider for help.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is when you turn to food to cope with the emotions you are experiencing. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s eating as a way to suppress or soothe emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. Using food to cope with emotions is understandable, and has probably happened to almost everyone at some point in their life. But, emotional eating can lead to unhealthy and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding food.
Imagine a scenario where something stressful happens: you experience strong emotions and turn to food to cope. Stressful events that can trigger powerful emotions include:
- Pressures or deadlines at work or school
- Having trouble paying an extra bill this month
- Arguing with friends, family, or your partner
- Dealing with health anxiety related to a new chronic health concern
If you don’t have a solid set of coping skills in your toolbox, you may use emotional eating to cope with the stressful situation. Any strong emotion could lead to emotional eating, but often it’s the emotions that we are uncomfortable with, such as:
You may not notice the strong emotions that lead to emotional eating. People commonly find it difficult to cope with uncomfortable feelings and often engage in emotional eating without realizing it. This could look like eating a pint of ice cream without noticing or mindlessly eating a bag of chips while watching a movie.
Emotional eating is unhealthy, especially for those working on weight loss or healthy eating. The consequences of emotional eating can include difficulty losing weight, giving up on weight loss, and an inability to stick to a healthy diet. The effects aren’t desirable, but it’s especially problematic if you have unhelpful thoughts and feelings about emotional eating. These thoughts can lead to a harmful pattern of emotional eating.
For example, you might feel lonely and eat a slice of chocolate cake to feel better. While chocolate cake may not be the ideal food choice, it’s not likely the end of the world. But often, when people engage in emotional eating, they feel worse afterward.
You might feel guilty or ashamed for eating chocolate cake. You might eat another slice of cake to cope with the guilt. And you may then criticize yourself for not following your diet or having self-control.
This negative pattern can become a vicious cycle of emotional eating, guilt, and more emotional eating. That’s why it’s important to become aware of your emotions and learn healthy coping skills. This can help break the cycle of emotional eating and lead to a healthier relationship with food.
What to Do Instead of Emotional Eating
If you think you’re engaging in emotional eating and want to break the cycle, here are some strategies that may help:
- Pause and check in with yourself. Pause when reaching for the unhealthy snack and check in with your emotions. Ask yourself these questions: Am I feeling hungry? What emotions am I feeling at this moment? How will I feel if I eat this (cake, chips, ice cream, etc.)?
- Try coping with uncomfortable emotions. If you are experiencing strong emotions, try coping strategies to manage your feelings before eating the desired unhealthy food. Everyone’s go-to coping strategies are different but could include: deep breathing or meditation, journaling, calling a supportive friend, exercise, or distraction. Letting yourself feel, process, and release uncomfortable emotions may also help.
- Allow yourself to enjoy it. If you consciously choose to eat the desired unhealthy food, then do so with permission. Before eating the chocolate cake, give yourself permission to actually enjoy it. Allowing yourself to enjoy the food can decrease feelings of guilt, shame, or disappointment afterward.
- Practice mindful eating. While eating the desired unhealthy food (cake, chips, ice cream, etc.), do so mindfully. Pay attention to how it tastes, smells, and feels in your mouth—and how you feel when eating it. Being mindful when eating can help you recognize when you’re full and no longer enjoying the food, which can help you decide to stop eating.
How to Get Help for Emotional Eating
If you cannot stop the pattern of emotional eating using self-help coping strategies, you may want to consider working with a mental health professional. A licensed counselor, social worker, therapist, or psychologist can help you understand why you’re emotionally eating and help you learn healthier coping strategies.
Working with a mental health professional can also help ensure you’re not dealing with an eating disorder, which is sometimes connected to emotional eating patterns. If you think you may have an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline for support, resources, and treatment options.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
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Binge Eating Disorder. (2022.)
NEDA Helpline. (N.D.)
Stress and Eating. (2013.)
Weight loss. (N.D.)