Have you ever caught yourself reaching for a snack or a treat not because you are hungry but because you are upset, bored, stressed, or anxious? How often do you reward yourself with a sweet treat, a favorite comfort food, or a tall milkshake at the end of a difficult day or week? How many times do you get a bite of that cookie or brownie “because you deserve it”? These are a few common examples of emotional eating.

While we all engage in some level of emotional eating throughout our day, some of us may struggle with it even more due to mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. So, is there a link between depression and emotional eating? How does emotional eating affect our mental and physical health, and what can you do to get it under control? Let’s look at the latest studies to find some answers.

What is Emotional Eating?

While some people tend to reduce their food intake when depressed, stressed, or anxious, others tend to eat more in response to these feelings. Emotional eating is “the propensity to eat in response to emotions.” In other words, it is a behavior in which a person consumes food in response to feelings rather than hunger. It’s a coping mechanism where individuals use food to deal with emotional distress, such as sadness, stress, loneliness, or boredom.

This behavior is often linked to the consumption of high-calorie, high-sugar, and high-fat foods that provide a temporary sense of relief or pleasure. Emotional eating is a critical risk factor for recurrent weight gain in youth and adults. Studies have shown that a person’s emotional states influence how much food they eat and their choice of eating healthy or unhealthy foods. When an individual is dealing with negative emotions, they are more likely to choose unhealthy or comfort foods that taste good. These choices, paired with a negative emotional state, can influence subsequent food choices and lead to more negative feelings and more emotional eating.

What Causes Emotional Eating?

Experts believe that emotional eating is not a separate eating disorder but an eating behavior that is influenced by behaviors, stress, emotions, and individual feelings in relation to eating. Emotional eaters are said to view food and eating as a reward and tend to use this reward effect to reduce or alleviate negative mood conditions. Emotional eating can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Stress: Chronic stress leads to elevated cortisol levels, a hormone that increases appetite. Under stress, people may crave foods high in fat and sugar.
  • Emotional Triggers: Negative emotions such as anger, sadness, or boredom can trigger emotional eating. Positive emotions like happiness can also lead to overeating, often during celebrations.
  • Childhood Habits: Many people form emotional eating habits in childhood. For instance, being rewarded with treats for good behavior can create a lifelong association between food and comfort.
  • Social Influences: Social gatherings often center around food, making it easy to overeat. Peer pressure can also lead to emotional eating, as individuals may eat to fit in or avoid standing out.
  • Biological Factors: Genetics and brain chemistry may also play a role. During eating, the release of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, can create a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, reinforcing the behavior.

How is Emotional Eating Bad for Your Health?

Because emotional eating involves consuming high-fat, high-sugar, energy-dense foods that are usually poor in nutrients and have a pleasant taste, it is one of the leading risk factors for weight gain, difficulty losing weight, and obesity. In addition, relying on eating comfort foods as a coping mechanism for negative emotions can have several detrimental effects on physical health.

For example, emotional eaters often choose unhealthy foods that lack essential nutrients, which could lead to nutritional deficiencies. In addition, binge eating or overeating, particularly unhealthy foods, can lead to digestive issues such as bloating, acid reflux, and constipation. In the long term, the poor food choices made by emotional eaters can play a role in increasing the risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

It is also well-known that consuming high-fat, high-sugar foods can interfere with a person’s blood sugar levels. Eating something sweet, for example, can cause energy spikes and the temporary release of feel-good hormones. That means you may feel happy and energized shortly after eating a treat, usually followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar levels. This leads to an energy “crash,” which makes you feel tired and can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety. Finally, emotional eating behaviors also tend to affect a person’s opinion about their own body image, as emotional eaters frequently feel negative emotions concerning their physical appearance right after the eating events.

What Are the Most Common Emotional Eating Triggers?

There are several different situations and resulting emotions that can lead a person to engage in emotional eating. One study found that boredom was a key trigger of emotional eating among women and men, whereas women tended to resort to food more often when feeling depressed or angry. The good news is that emotional eating can be managed, and the first step is to begin noticing common triggers that may lead you to reach for those snacks even if you aren’t hungry.

Things like work-related stress, academic-related stress, financial issues, or personal conflicts can all trigger negative emotions (such as sadness, anxiety, and fear) and lead to emotional eating. Fatigue and lack of sleep can also exacerbate negative emotions – especially for individuals suffering from a form of clinical depression – which in turn can trigger emotional eating and influence a person to make poor food choices in an attempt to feel better.

Not every emotional eating trigger is related to negative feelings. In fact, certain environments or situations, such as being at a party, watching television, or even at social events where family and friends may encourage you to eat, are all common triggers.

So, do you eat when you are sad? Do you eat when you are stressed? Or do you mindlessly destroy a family-size bag of chips while watching television? Start noticing your feelings, environment, and activities to realize when and where you are using food as a coping mechanism. Awareness of what triggers you to engage in emotional eating is the first step to taking charge of your habits and making a positive change.

Is Emotional Eating a Sign of Depression?

There is significant evidence linking emotional eating and depression. While not everyone who engages in emotional eating suffers from a form of depression, it is not unusual for depression patients to use food as a coping mechanism. A recent study found that depression was positively and directly associated with emotional eating, especially for patients with related conditions such as impulsivity and alexithymia.

Because eating can provide a temporary sense of comfort or distraction from negative emotions, individuals with depression may turn to food as a way to cope with their feelings. Food, particularly carbohydrates, can temporarily increase serotonin levels, leading to a temporary mood lift. Additionally, depression can affect brain chemistry, altering levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and can also affect a person’s ability to control their impulses. Many depression patients also struggle with getting adequate sleep and are often fatigued, making it significantly more difficult for the individual to make healthy food choices and curb cravings.

In other words, while emotional eating is not always associated with depression, it can be commonly observed in conjunction with depressive disorders. If you find yourself routinely engaging in emotional eating, it may be worth taking the time to think about it and try to identify the reasons behind it. If you are already in treatment for depression, it may be a good idea to speak to your healthcare provider about this issue. If you have not been diagnosed with depression but suspect you may be affected by it, you may also want to speak to a healthcare provider to discuss your options. There’s no shame in seeking help and being your own advocate for your mental and physical health.

How Can You Stop Emotional Eating?

Stopping emotional eating involves a combination of strategies to address both the behavior and its underlying causes. As mentioned above, awareness is the very first step in the right direction.

Start by identifying your triggers and make a note of all situations that cause you to want to reach for food when you are not hungry. Many people find it useful to keep a food diary, write down what they eat and when, and note any emotional triggers. This can be helpful in raising your awareness about any behavior patterns you may have.

You will also want to engage in mindful eating. That simply means paying attention to what you are eating and why in order to better recognize true hunger and fullness signals. A simple way to practice mindful eating is to eat a healthy meal without distracting yourself – put your phone away, turn off the television, and place your focus on what you are eating. Having a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can help reduce cravings. A smart strategy to avoid unhealthy snacking is to stock your kitchen with plenty of healthy options.

If you have been relying on emotional eating as a coping mechanism for negative emotions, you may want to find alternative ways to cope with emotions, such as exercise, meditation, or engaging in hobbies. However, we know changing your habits or finding a healthier coping mechanism on your own can be difficult. So don’t be afraid to seek support from friends, family, or support groups. Sharing your struggles can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide accountability. Finally, seek professional help. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help create a healthy eating plan tailored to your needs, and a qualified therapist can assist you in identifying what is causing you to be an emotional eater and help you create better coping mechanisms.

Can Therapy Help with Emotional Eating?

While emotional eating provides a temporary escape from negative emotions, it ultimately leads to more harm than good, contributing to weight gain, nutritional deficiencies, and increased risk of chronic diseases. Therapy can be a valuable tool in addressing emotional eating along with the many challenging symptoms of depression.

Several therapeutic approaches can be effective, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with emotional eating. It focuses on developing healthier coping mechanisms and improving emotional regulation.

Another type of therapy that may be beneficial is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which combines cognitive behavioral techniques with mindfulness practices. DBT is a type of talk therapy that can be particularly effective for individuals with emotional regulation difficulties, helping them manage stress and emotions without resorting to food.

No matter if you are struggling with depression, emotional eating, or simply feel like something is not right with your mental health, getting help from a professional is a crucial step. At APN, you can find a team of highly skilled mental health professionals who are ready to help you with a custom treatment plan in a supportive, judgment-free environment.

Freedom From Emotional Eating With Plus by APN

From in-person group therapy and cutting-edge treatments for depression to convenient online therapy options, you can rely on Plus by APN for a holistic approach to help you identify the causes of your emotional eating habits. Go beyond simply treating symptoms and take the right steps to live a healthier, happier lifestyle with the right professional help on your side. Contact us at 424.644.6486 or complete our online contact form to learn more.


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