what is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a tendency to uplift negative mood conditions by unhealthy food intake. It is like a coping mechanism to regulate emotions. In such a condition, food is not consumed to satiate hunger but is used as a means to manage a stressful emotional state and to uplift the mood. Food becomes associated with feelings of comfort and solace. This is an unhealthy way to process your emotions and is a cause of concern as contributes to weight gain and conditions of obesity.
World Health Organization reports that in 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese. In light of the spike in global obesity rates, emotional eating is being widely recognized as one of the causes of the obesity
Are you Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating derives originally from psychosomatic theory. According to this, it is the result of the inability to differentiate hunger from an internal negative state. This could be due to early childhood experiences resulting in food being attached to emotions. It was found
that emotional eating leads to an increase in the consumption of sugary and high fat foods.(1)
Let’s take an example of Meera. Meera has been brought up in a typical Indian household where food is used as a tool to please people. She has grown by being blackmailed into eating with her mother often telling her, ‘Please finish the food, do it for your mother’s happiness’. As a child, she was rewarded with junk or sugary food for finishing her meals and was
repeatedly told to not ‘count the chapattis’. In Meera’s family, when someone consumed healthy portions of food, they were asked if something was ‘wrong’ with them. As a result, she has equated copious food consumption to happiness. Meera’s childhood has left her unequipped to consider food as a nutritive fuel but instead to be used for coping with emotional distress. As a result, she is grossly overweight and is stuck in an emotional rut. Negative emotions trigger her to eat without thinking. She wants to lose weight but the stress of the process puts her right back to where she was in the beginning. Food becomes her only savior.
This was a very simplistic understanding of emotional eating. We will now try to examine certain factors than can put someone more at risk of emotional eating.
- STRESSFUL LIFE
Life, in general, is full of stress. An experience of stress has been linked to an individual’s poor capability to respond to their internal state thereby, increasing the chances of emotional eating (2). Some individuals who are undergoing stressful situations are more susceptible to emotional eating.
- PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS
People undergoing depression or anxiety are more likely to go through emotional eating. (1) A study showed emotional eating in girls increased with perceived stress and worries and tension/anxiety while only confused mood affected emotional eating in boys. (3) Those suffering from depression, anxiety and those diagnosed with these syndromes are more likely to use food as a way out. There are also other behavioural aspects such as restrained eating. Too much restriction and control with respect to food can also lead to emotional/binge eating episodes.
- BIOLOGICAL FACTORS
Being overweight can put you at a risk of becoming an emotional eater. (2) This is because studies have shown that obesity is linked to high emotional reactivity. Simply put, overweight people can be more sensitive to emotional situations and are more likely to overeat as compared to people in the normal weight range.
Representation of emotional eating on tv, movies and other mediums can actually sensationalize this phenomenon. You will be able to recall scenes from various movies and sitcoms wherein the protagonist consumes tubs of ice cream or mindlessly consumes large packets of chips one after the other, when faced with a low in
their life. This can cause many of us to believe that this is acceptable and in fact, trendy!
BEING AN EMOTIONAL EATER
If you can identify with the situations above, it is time to evaluate your relationship with food. If you are at risk of being an emotional eater or are aware that you already are, there are many ways to address this. The first step is to identify the problem, followed by figuring out the root cause and then working on it with a suitable approach.
If you are confused about whether you are an emotional eater or not, following are a couple of questions that can help you:
- Do you find yourself turning to food, especially unhealthy or sugary food when you are feeling low or down?
- Do you consume such food alone? Do you make sure no one is around during this eating episode?
- At any point, does your inner dialogue sound like ‘ I am way too upset. I deserve this food because it will make me happy’?
- Do you feel a constant sense of guilt while eating in this way?
- Does this happen every time you are sad, or even 60-70% of the times?
If you have answered ‘Yes’ to most of the above questions, there is a problem at hand and like most problems, YOU can solve it with appropriate guidance and knowledge. Our next article will cover the topic of management techniques that an emotional eater can benefit from. Till
then, enjoy your food till it gratifies your hunger and not your emotions!
About the Author : A psychologist by education and a fitness enthusiast by choice, Saakshi dreams to combine these worlds. Content writing and social media management is a passion that keeps her in the constant learner mode.
- Hanna Konttinen, Satu Männistö, Sirpa Sarlio-Lähteenkorva, Karri Silventoinen, Ari Haukkala, Emotional eating, depressive symptoms and self-reported food consumption. A population-based study, Appetite, Volume 54, Issue 3, 2010, Pages 473-479, ISSN 0195-6663.
- Tan, Cin Cin & Chow, Chong Man. (2014). Stress and emotional eating: The mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personality and Individual Differences. 66. 1–4.10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.033.
- Nguyen-Rodriguez ST, Unger JB, Spruijt-Metz D. Psychological determinants of emotional eating in adolescence. Eat Disord. 2009;17(3):211-224. doi:10.1080/10640260902848543
- Lowe, M.R., Fisher, E.B. Emotional reactivity, emotional eating, and obesity: A naturalistic study. J Behav Med 6, 135–149 (1983). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00845377
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