Do you have a healthy relationship with food? If emotional eating is getting in the way of healthy eating, healthy weight, or your emotional well-being, experts say that there are steps you can take to better cope.
Emotional eating is not a clinical diagnosis or even a term with a clinical definition that all experts agree on.
It’s often used colloquially in reference to eating as a way of coping with negative emotions, particularly overeating, but experts have argued that eating can also be a response to positive emotions and that it doesn’t necessarily always involve overeating.
When a person leans heavily on eating as a coping mechanism for negative emotions, however, many experts agree that it is problematic — and there are healthier coping tools someone can learn.
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“When emotional eating is accompanied by feelings of shame or numbness, an uncomfortable feeling of fullness, or a loss of control, you could be developing a negative relationship with food, a pattern of restrictive eating, or other disordered eating behavior,” says Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia. Dr. Laing’s research has focused on weight-inclusive approaches to improving health and well-being.
5 Signs That Emotional Eating May Be a Problem for You
Emotional eating is not synonymous with overeating or problematic eating. But if you don’t have a healthy relationship with food, or if you question whether your emotional eating is problematic, here are some red flags.
1. You Have Sudden Food Cravings for Specific, High-Fat Foods
While not all eating is or should be in response to physiological hunger, there tends to be a difference between hunger that’s spurred by a physical need to eat and hunger that’s spurred by emotions. “Physical hunger comes on gradually. Emotional hunger often comes on suddenly and feels urgent, like it must be satisfied immediately,” says Amy Girimonti, a licensed master social worker and eating disorder therapist for Embark Behavioral Health in Phoenix, Arizona.
Emotional hunger, or cravings, tends to revolve around foods higher in fat (think ice cream, chips, french fries, or macaroni and cheese). Research suggests that people who report struggling with emotional eating point to higher-fat foods as the foods they seek in these situations.
Again, it’s when these types of emotional cravings and eating are used as a coping mechanism to remedy a low mood or challenging situation — or lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or loss of control — that they may be a problem, Girimonti adds.
2. You Find Yourself Mindlessly Stress Eating
If after hearing bad news or fighting with your partner, you grab a bag of chips and start chowing down, only to realize the bag is gone before you know it, it could be a sign that stress eating is taking a toll.
“Eating without paying attention to the quantity or quality of food is a common sign of emotional eating, and emotional eating often involves eating too quickly, not savoring the food, and seeking relief rather than nourishment,” explains Ryan Sultan, MD, a teaching psychiatrist and researcher at Columbia University in New York City.
3. You Eat Even When You’re Not Hungry
Another sign that emotional eating could be problematic is if you often eat when you’re not hungry or continue eating when you’re already full. This can go hand in hand with eating mindlessly and rapidly, as studies indicate you may not recognize fullness cues as they take place when eating quickly, since it takes time for those hormones in the gut to be released and recognized by the brain.
It’s important to note that not every instance of eating when you’re not hungry is a sign of emotional eating or problematic, says Kelsey M. Latimer, PhD, RN, a certified eating disorder specialist supervisor and the owner of KLM Psychological Services in Stuart, Florida. Examples are eating a certain food as a way to bond or adhere to social norms, like eating a piece of cake at the office for a coworker’s birthday or sharing snacks with friends at a movie theater.
“We all sometimes eat when we’re not hungry. That can be normal,” Dr. Latimer says.
Eating when you’re not hungry is a problem and a possible sign of problematic emotional eating when it causes you distress afterward. “It tends to cause the person distress and the level of intensity may be higher. The eating may be done in an isolative and secretive manner,” Latimer says. She adds that the issue isn’t the fact that the person ate or that they ate in response to an emotion; rather it can be problematic because of the experience around it and how often it occurs.
4. Emotional Eating Is Your Go-To Way of Coping
Occasionally using food to help cope with a tough situation is normal, says Laing and other experts interviewed for this article. “Emotive eating is a relatively normal reaction to being bored or anxious, and turning toward food for comfort can be a safe and effective strategy for some people to cope with life’s ups and downs,” Laing explains.
But if eating is the only way you cope with ups and downs, that may be a sign of a bigger issue. “If someone is having a bad week at work and decides to go home and have some ice cream as a pick-me-up, that is not really emotional eating,” says Yelena Wheeler, MPH, RDN, a clinical dietitian in private practice in Burbank, California. “If someone needs to consume something every time they find themselves in an unpleasant situation, then that is something that needs to be examined further.”
Wheeler emphasizes that it comes down to whether the behavior is interfering with day-to-day life or has changed over time to become a habit that’s disruptive. For instance, if your desk drawers, bag, car, and bedside table always have to be stocked with chocolate bars or your favorite chips just in case of an unpleasant or unexpected text or conversation, you may be leaning too heavily on food as a coping mechanism.
5. Feeling Guilt, Shame, or Weakness About Your Eating
Because eating in response to emotions is normal, it is normal to have feelings about what you eat. “When we limit our view of food to merely a source of fuel, a mechanism to curb hunger, or a tool to change our body size, we minimize its other important roles that also support health,” Laing says. “Food unites us with others, satisfies our taste buds, celebrates our cultures and traditions, and reconnects us with treasured memories.”
But a tell that something more is going on is if the emotion that eating evokes is distressing. If eating in response to emotions (positive or challenging ones) always results in feelings of shame or weakness, Laing says that’s an indication that someone has developed a more negative relationship with food.
How to Deal With Emotional Eating if It’s Becoming Problematic
If you think you might be emotionally eating in a way that’s problematic, know that you’re not alone.
A recent survey from Everyday Health, which included 3,144 adults who reported trying to lose weight within the past six months, found that 46 percent of respondents said they sometimes felt guilt or shame about the foods they ate before attempting to lose weight. And after the weight loss attempt, 53 percent said they sometimes felt guilt or shame about what they ate.
What are some healthy ways to address these feelings? Here are some steps to try.
1. Practice Self-Awareness
Pay attention to how you tend to react or respond when strong emotions — stress, anxiety, anger, or even excitement — arise. If you’re hit with a sudden craving to eat, it’s worth asking yourself if you really want or need to eat or if eating is a coping mechanism to soothe what you’re feeling. “Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, as a reward, or to celebrate is human. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism, you can get stuck in an unhealthy cycle,” says Girimonti.
Practicing self-awareness isn’t always easy. Dr. Sultan suggests keeping a food and emotion journal to help identify emotional triggers and any patterns that may arise. Jot down the foods you consume during the day along with the emotions you are experiencing before, during, and after eating. This can help you identify patterns of food consumption in relation to your moment-to-moment emotions.
2. Try Out Other Stress Management Tools
Girimonti says that it’s important to find new or different ways to cope when you’re faced with strong emotions. Things like calling or texting a friend, taking a shower, exercising, meditation, or walking around the office as a distraction are all options.
These alternatives can really help improve outcomes and overall health. One study found that mindfulness meditation training helped individuals better control their food-related emotional impulses.
3. Connect With a Dietitian or Therapist
When your emotional eating is interfering with daily life, is accompanied by strong feelings of guilt or shame, or is something you’re becoming secretive about, it may help to seek professional support.
Know that your feelings about what you eat can be influenced by a lot of factors outside of your control (and sometimes outside of your awareness, too). Subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages in marketing campaigns and across social media send us messages that certain foods are guilt free, indulgent, or splurge worthy, and that we should indeed feel certain emotions about the foods we eat, including some not-so-nice ones.
One study published in 2022 looked at 1,000 TikTok videos from popular nutrition, food, and weight-related hashtags and found that a majority presented a weight-normative view of health, meaning they indicated health is only possible at a specific weight, weight and disease are linearly connected, and one has a personal responsibility for their weight.
A systematic review published in 2023 found a significant correlation between adolescent social media use, disordered eating symptoms, body dissatisfaction, and other mental health concerns.
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Laing says that your primary care doctor, a mental health professional, or a registered dietitian can all be helpful, particularly if the expert you seek specializes in disordered eating. She suggests looking for a registered dietitian using the Find a Nutrition Expert tool at EatRight.org, and she mentions that the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders has an online directory to help you identify experts in your area, as well as other resources.
Everyday Health‘s Weight Loss Reframed Survey queried 3,144 Americans nationwide ages 18 and older who had tried losing weight in the previous six months. The study was fielded between July 10 and August 18, 2023, across demographic groups, genders, and health conditions. Survey recruitment took place via an online portal, in app, and via email. The margin of error for the sample size of 3,144 is +/-1.7 percent at a 95 percent confidence level.