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Hunger of a Different Kind - Emotional Eating

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Eating disorders are widely misunderstood – but knowledge is power! Learn more about Emotional Eating from Dr. Nel Wieman

March is “Food is Medicine” month at the FNHA. In a previous blog post, Doctors Evan Adams and Shannon McDonald discussed the role of food in keeping our minds, bodies and spirits healthy and well. However, for some of us, how we eat and what we eat is out of balance due to emotional eating. In this post Dr. Nel Wieman, the FNHA’s Senior Medical Officer for Mental Health and Wellness, discusses this practice and its effects.

We’ve all done it at some point – grabbed a chocolate bar or a bag of chips when we’re feeling sad or stressed or bored. It’s called emotional eating because we’re eating to satisfy an emotional need – the food soothes and comforts us. Enjoying food as an occasional reward or pick-me-up is a normal part of life. However, problems arise if this kind of eating is the only or the main strategy used to cope with negative emotions – like anger, depression or anxiety.

Sometimes we may only eat one thing (e.g., a chocolate bar) in response to an emotional need but at other times we eat a series of foods – such as a chocolate bar, then an ice cream cone, then a bag of candy. In other cases we eat more than we originally intended, for example, a craving for potato chips turns into eating the whole bag – or we may start by wanting to eat a few cookies and then end up eating the entire package. This type of eating often leaves us feeling guilty, ashamed, or out-of-control. This is when emotional eating becomes emotional overeating. This is when it becomes a problem.

How to Identify Emotional Eating

It can be easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger, however the two are quite different.

​Emotional hunger:

• develops almost instantly;

• isn’t located in the stomach – you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head;

• isn’t satisfied once you’re full - you keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed;

• usually leads to consumption of sugary or high-fat foods;

• leaves us with feelings of shame, guilt, regret and/or feeling out of control. 

Physical hunger:

• usually develops gradually;

• does not entail craving certain foods;

• is located in the stomach (e.g., a growling belly or a pang in your stomach);

• is satisfied when your stomach is full;

• is not followed by negative emotions or feeling badly about oneself. 

The Impact of Emotional Eating

Emotional eating creates a vicious cycle where negative emotions compel us to consume unhealthy foods, followed by other negative emotions that lead to feeling badly about ourselves. Emotional eating can also lead to other negative consequences: negative body image, low self-esteem, weight gain, the worsening of other physical conditions (e.g., diabetes) or the worsening of other emotional conditions (e.g., depression).

Why Does Emotional Overeating Occur?

As explained on the website of Beat, a charity in the United Kingdom to help people with eating disorders: “we’re still learning more about the causes of emotional overeating... There is no one main cause or trigger, and it is likely to be a complex combination of genetic, psychological, environmental, social and biological factors.”

We do know that people who engage in emotional overeating do so to change how we feel in the moments we are feeling distress of some kind.  For those living with chronic intergenerational trauma, there can be many moments of emotional distress – times when we are feeling especially depressed, anxious or upset.  During these moments, we may turn to emotional eating in order to cope because we don’t have other coping strategies, because this is how we’ve seen family members cope, and/or because we are bombarded with marketing that extols the “feel good” power of high-fat, high-sugar food.  A concerning aspect of this is when emotional eating becomes our only or our “go-to” coping mechanism.

How Do You Stop Emotional Overeating?

Stopping emotional overeating first involves recognizing the behavior is a problem. If you think you have a problem with your eating – emotional overeating or any other eating disorder – speak to your health care provider. The resources below offer various strategies to address emotional overeating. Blog writer and former emotional overeater Allison Dryja offers what is perhaps the most essential key to success: recognizing that you are worth caring for:

“It’s time to wake up to your beauty and feed your body with the love and tenderness it truly deserves.”

Emotional Eating Resources

• Overeaters Anonymous: https://oa.org/

•​ FNHA takes a harm reduction approach to substance use but for those who are interested in or choose abstinence, a helpful book on food addiction is “Food Junkies: The Truth about Food Addiction” written by Dr. Vera Tarman and Philip Werdell – available on Amazon.​

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