Do you let your feelings rule your stomach on a frequent basis? It’s not weakness—you could have an emotional eating disorder.
Sure, we’ve all done it before—snacking when we’re not truly hungry. See if any of these scenarios sound familiar: You’re at a fancy restaurant and order dessert even though you’re already stuffed; you overindulge during a holiday party out of sheer politeness; or you eat an entire tray of decidedly mediocre food on a flight just because you’re bored and have nothing else to do. For many people, this kind of indulgence isn’t just occasional, and the feeling that follows a decadent treat isn’t pleasure, but instead an intense mix of relief, anxiety, and guilt.
We tend to associate salty, fatty, and sugary foods (ya know, all the “naughty” stuff) with reassurance—they were often our childhood rewards for good behavior, or tools parents used for comforting an upset kid. If you received an ice cream cone as a reward for straight As, or your mom made mac and cheese when you lost a game, chances are that these foods are still powerfully associated with mood regulation in adulthood. (Looking for healthy snacks? See what smart snacks these 10 celebrities choose.)
“When you experience ups and downs in adult life, you feel you deserve to be rewarded or comforted and turn to food to relive those warm feelings of childhood,” psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman tells us.
However, if you find that those feelings rule your stomach more than seems normal, you might actually have an emotional eating disorder.
Emotional Eating Defined
“Emotional eaters have confusion about hunger,” Dr. Roger Gould, psychiatrist and author of Shrink Yourself: Break Free from Emotional Eating Forever, explains. “Emotional hunger comes on quickly, makes you eat even if you are already full, and has an imperative quality—it’s a rush to shut off or quiet your brain.”
So where did the phrase itself come from? Mary Anne Cohen, Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders, actually coined the term “emotional eater” way back in 1982 to describe people who have a more complex relationship with food and body image than is considered average.
“For the emotional eaters, food is like a drug that they turn to in order to soothe and calm various difficult emotions. They are hungry from the heart, not from the stomach,” she tells us. “The difference between normal eaters and emotional eaters is that the normal ones bounce back to their regular patterns after overindulging. They don’t feel extreme guilt for having overeaten and don’t put themselves on a rigid diet to compensate for having eaten extra food.”
A situation that would be tolerable to other people can be overwhelming and intense for emotional eaters, Sarasota-based psychotherapist Karen Koenig explains how people who eat emotionally often have powerful memories associated with these otherwise mildly stressful situations.
“Many of my clients are triggered by intense emotional memories such as feeling disappointed, devalued, or rejected,” she tells us. “It’s not the actual situation that is unbearable and pushes people toward emotional eating, but the feelings that are linked to similar intense memories.” (Feeling overwhelmed? You may want to try these 5 Yoga Poses That Fight Stress.)
While anxiety surrounding a particular situation is the most common trigger, there are many others, Cohen tells us. “Depression, anger, sexual conflict, rejection, jealousy, shame, guilt, feeling overwhelmed, grief, boredom, and loneliness. In other words, any feeling that is troublesome for the person and difficult to ‘digest’ can lead to emotional eating.”
While the psychology of emotional eating is critical to understanding its causes, there are physiological components as well.
“When we eat, the sugars that get absorbed mimic the effects of serotonin and dopamine,” medical weight loss specialist Dr. Sue Decotiis explains. “So if we don’t produce enough of one or both of these chemicals, overeating can become habitual. When we eat that gallon of ice cream, we feel better, so we start just doing that.”
However, overindulging isn’t the only thing that can increase our serotonin levels. Surprisingly, most of the serotonin in our bodies is produced by our guts, so one of the best ways to produce more serotonin is to establish a really healthy gut environment, Dr. Decotiis recommends. By eating a relatively well-balanced diet, our gut becomes healthier, and we produce more serotonin naturally. “[Tweet “When our gut is healthy, we are actually less hungry, our cravings are more easily controlled, “]and our metabolism performs better.”
According to nutritional biochemist Dr. Shawn Talbott, emotional eating may also be driven in part by our primary stress hormone, cortisol. Exposure to cortisol can actually cause an increase in appetite, despite the fact that your body doesn’t really need any more food, and that can lead to weight gain.
When you’re stressed out, do you crave salty stuff like fries, potato chips, cheddar popcorn, or fried chicken? That’s not your body being weak—the saltiness may actually positively impact your brain’s stress systems, lowering stress hormones like cortisol and raising oxytocin (the hormone associated with feeling good). In fact, a recent study conducted on rats, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, demonstrated that subjects with high salt levels were less stressed than subjects with lower salt levels.
That said, while your body may be telling you otherwise, a big plate of fries is probably not the answer—and if you’re a true emotional eater, it’ll just leave you feeling wracked with more guilt than relief. (Also beware of these 10 “Healthy” Foods Saltier Than a Bag of Chips.)
Strategies to Combat Emotional Eating
If you think you’re prone to emotional eating, a good place to start is with a doctor who specializes in food issues. He or she can test for any potential external factors that you should be aware of—what you may be chalking up to emotional eating could be pre-diabetes or another condition that needs separate care.
Once you’ve ascertained that your problem really is emotional eating, it’s important to identify what your personal triggers are.
“Determine which people, places, and things set you up to binge,” Cohen advises. “Then you need to couple that awareness with a concrete plan of action.” (Which will take some mental toughness.)
She suggests talking to friends, writing your feelings down, taking a shower, or planning an alternative, healthier activity. For those working through personal issues, untangling them with a psychotherapist or a group can be helpful. Cohen says that psychotherapy for emotional eating helps people separate their food from their feelings and restore normal eating patterns.
For some, emotional eating can be partially addressed through medicine. Dr. Seun Sowemimo, medical director of Prime Surgicare, suggests that some of the same medications that help people who suffer from addiction can help curb emotional eating, including Narcan and Contrave, although these drugs would not necessarily be a fit for everyone who experiences emotional eating.
Relatedly, Dr. Decotiis says that a drug called GLP-1 (a glucagon-like peptide-1) has recently been approved by the FDA to treat weight loss, and may help emotional eaters, too. This neurochemical, naturally produced by your gut, can help regulate your appetite. So if you make your gut healthier, it’ll produce more GLP-1 naturally, too.
Finally, Dr. Lieberman offers a simple switch-up to help keep your diet on track: To prevent yourself from overindulging on the foods you crave, stock up instead on snacks that are similar, but with fewer calories. For instance, in lieu of potato chips, keep a stash of air-popped popcorn. Three whole cups of the crunchy stuff contain less than a hundred calories—a snack that will leave you feeling more healthy than guilty.