Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: Emotional Eating


By: Brooke Tresch, RD, Campus Dietitian, Sodexo Mason Dining

[Emotional Eating] may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.” – Evelyn Tribole

Emotional eating is the process of using food as a means to cope with or suppress emotions. Here’s what research shows about emotional eating, and well-being tips to overcome emotional eating.

What the Research Shows

When we indulge in emotional eating, we use “comfort foods” – like cake or potato chips – that are typically high in levels of sugar, fat, or salt when we’re not biologically hungry, to cope with emotional distress. Those foods may temporarily soothe us emotionally, but they’re not healthy for us physically. Comfort foods trigger the release of neurotransmitters – such as dopamine and serotonin – that contribute to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. However, eating comfort foods when we’re not physically hungry means consuming more calories than our bodies need, with little nutritional value from those calories.

Studies have shown that emotional eating in response to negative emotions is associated with unhealthy weight outcomes, including weight gain over time and difficulties with weight loss and weight maintenance. It is estimated that 60 percent or more of overweight or obese individuals are emotional eaters. Increased body weight, along with poor food choices in response to negative emotions, place emotional eaters at higher risk than other people of developing diabetes and heart disease.

My Well-Being Tips for Overcoming Emotional Eating

As Mason’s campus dietician, I work to help students eat healthy foods every day. College can be stressful, and everyone can struggle with emotions and be tempted to eat emotionally – especially when dealing with stress. Here are some well-being tips that anyone can use to overcome emotional eating.

An important aspect of addressing emotional eating is understanding our bodies’ personal hunger and satiety cues. Different biological signs of hunger can include stomach growling, difficulty focusing, and experiencing irritability. Using Berkely’s Hunger-Satiety Scale before and after meals can help us become more in tune with our bodies.

Tracking these cues should be an experience of genuine curiosity and not judgment. For example, if we ate too much and are logging our satiety level at a 9, why did we overeat? Did we have back-to-back classes and skip breakfast this morning? Did we really enjoy the taste of the food and continue eating it even though we knew we were biologically full? How can we approach that situation differently the next time and better honor our satiety cues? Negative self-talk can be harmful and may worsen anxiety and depression and cause low self-esteem. It is not a helpful tactic in improving our relationship with food.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re considering eating something:

  1. Ask yourself, “Am I biologically hungry?” If the answer is yes, then eat. If the answer is no, go to question #2.
  2. Ask yourself, “What emotion am I currently experiencing?” This emotion may be boredom, stress, anxiety, joy, loneliness, etc.
  3. Ask yourself. “How can I cope with this emotion in a way that does not involve food?” Examples of different coping strategies include reading a book, watching your favorite show, going on a walk with a friend, calling your mom, practicing mindfulness meditation, etc.
  4. Regardless of how you are responding to your emotions, I encourage you to practice self-compassion. We are not perfect humans and there is no such thing as perfect eating. It is important to give yourself some grace, especially when life gets tough.

If you are struggling with emotional eating regularly, speak to your healthcare provider and consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian and licensed therapist.

Additional Resources

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