Do you find yourself eating more when you’re feeling low? Using food to soothe negative thoughts, feelings, or other sensations is called emotional eating. Over time, emotional eating can lead to poor diet and obesity, all while leaving the root causes, such as anger, sadness, or stress, untreated.

What Is Emotional Eating?

You may have heard the phrase “eating your emotions.” When you find yourself reaching for comfort foods to ease worry or other mental strife, this is emotional eating. This common phenomenon, seen among both adults and children, contributes to the obesity epidemic. According to the Trust for America’s Health, over 30 percent of people in the United States are now classified as overweight or obese. Emotional eating, if ignored, can lead to more serious physical and mental health complications.

Symptoms and Causes

In a study published by Appetite, 16 college students were observed and asked to journal about their eating habits. Females tended to eat more during times of stress. Males took to emotional eating out of boredom and anxiety. The women had feelings of guilt after these episodes, while the men frequently did not. Both groups favored unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar during these emotional times.

If you notice yourself reaching into the pantry or refrigerator whenever you’re feeling upset, you might be experiencing emotional eating. You’re not alone. Indulging from time to time can certainly be normal, but when it’s followed by guilt or shame, it ends up piling on more negative emotions. This creates a dangerous cycle that can result in:

  • weight gain
  • obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and sleep apnea
  • depression
  • eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder

Risk Factors

People with depression or other mood disorders are at risk for developing emotional eating behaviors. People who lead high-stress lives or often deal with intensified emotions, like anger, may also engage in overeating. Likewise, college students and those who are going through major life transitions, often associated with emotional upheaval, are at higher risk for developing these habits.

Interestingly, in another study published by Appetite, researchers discovered that many overweight and obese individuals self-classify as emotional eaters.

Emotional Eating vs. Binge Eating Disorder

Unlike emotional eating, binge eating is classified as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A binge eating disorder (BED) diagnosis is characterized by regular episodes of binge eating that leave you uncomfortably full.

People who engage in emotional eating tend to overeat, but with BED, the volume of food is much more than a normal person would eat under similar circumstances. BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Emotional eating can be a precursor to the full-blown disorder.

The long-term health consequences of both emotional eating and BED are similar and consistent with those associated with clinical obesity.

Coping Strategies

One of the best ways to deal with emotional eating is to recognize when and why you’re doing it. Keeping a food and mood journal can be a helpful tool to identify what foods you’re eating and when. Try recording your mood or what was going on at the time to see if you can observe any patterns or specific triggers. Consider rating your hunger before and after meals to help identify trends.

Of course, treating the emotions at the root of the issue is very effective as well. Engaging in regular physical exercise, like walking or yoga, can diffuse tough emotions. Counseling can allow you to work through long-term stress, sadness, anxiety, anger, and other situations that cannot be avoided in everyday life. Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders are serious illnesses that require medical care and attention.

Coping with Stress

Your emotional eating might not be terribly severe. In this case, try changing the foods you grab to make healthier choices. Over time, eating less sugar and fat may stop the emotional eating cycle in its tracks by lessening the feelings of guilt. You might also try positive coping self-statements like “I need to understand what triggered my overeating so I can plan better choices in the future.”

When to See Your Doctor

If you believe your habits have gotten out of your control, a visit to your doctor might be in order. You can have a complete physical examination and discuss your concerns. You may want to ask for a referral to a psychiatrist or therapist who can help you identify and treat any issues you feel are contributing to your overeating. A registered dietitian may also be able to help you with your eating patterns and habits. See your doctor right away if you think you’ve developed an eating disorder like BED.

Healthy Habits, Healthier You

You may feel that your overeating is just an issue of self-control. Instead, it’s a habit. Breaking the habit of emotional eating is often the hardest part. Once you’ve identified that those brownies you inhaled are masking the stress of your workday, you can make the small steps toward change.