Understanding and recognizing the signs of emotional eating can be a great first step to identifying the underlying cause and finding a sustainable solution.
Emotional eating can be described as when a person feels positive or negative emotions and responds to the feeling with an inclination towards eating. Although it is very common for people to experience this when they are coping with a negative situation, it is not rare to eat in celebration or when experiencing positivity.
Eating to cope with negative emotions, also known as emotion-focused coping can be a form of relief where the individual seeks to reduce, balance and break away from emotional stress. There are three main theories on emotional eating as a coping strategy. Inadequate Affect Regulation Theory suggests that individuals who indulge in overeating believe it mitigates the negative feelings. Another theory that arose from Inadequate Affect regulation theory is the Escape theory which suggests that individuals not only eat to overcome negative feelings but to redirect attention from stimuli of threatening self-esteem to pleasure stimuli such as food. The third theory is the Restraint theory where it is believed that individuals who restrict and control what they eat are more likely to use emotional eating as a coping strategy when faced with negative challenges.
There are many complex factors that can contribute to emotional eating such as the negative affectivity trait, eating disorders like binge eating and bulimia nervosa, childhood development, biological and environmental factors, and the positive affect.
Negative affectivity is poor - self concept which involves negative emotions like anger, guilt, fear, nervousness…etc. This can both cause an individual to develop food restraint and overeating.
Eating disorders like binge eating and Bulimia nervosa can go hand in hand with emotional eating as one can contribute to the other. Both disorders are related to emotion focused coping strategy and an extreme aversion to negative emotions and stimuli.
Learned behaviours during childhood development can often carry into adulthood. For example, a child who is rewarded with a candy for good behaviour can continue this behaviour when they reward a good day or a bad day at work with food.
Emotional eating habits can be highly affected by biological and environmental factors. Studies have shown that stress can play a major factor when it comes to food choices and eating habits. In a study women were exposed to high stressor tasks and neutral control conditions on different days. Afterwards the women were invited to a buffet with both healthy foods and unhealthy foods. Women with high stress levels consumed significantly more calorie dense (unhealthy) foods than women who had lower stress levels that were exposed to the same high stressor tasks and control conditions.
Evidence indicates that high cortisol levels together with high insulin levels can increase stress - induced eating. Hyperphagia is often associated with high cortisol sensitivity, which shows unusually raised appetite levels in people under stress. Our Adrenal glands serve us many functions from regulation of metabolism, immune system, response to stress and other essential functions. When the body is stressed, the adrenal glands release what is known as glucocorticoids, commonly known as the cortisol hormone which is regulated by the pituitary gland. Hypothalamus part of the brain connects the nervous and endocrine systems in the body via the Pituitary gland. If too much cortisol circulates in the bloodstream, hormone cortisol increases neuron activity in the hypothalamus which sends signals to tell you ‘I’m hungry’. Over time when one is under a lot of stress, this may become a concern as the brain is under the impression that you are hungry even when your energy intake is still the same. As the appetite increases, one can easily reach for rich high-fat, high-sugar foods even when there is no change in the energy needs.
People whose lifestyles or careers involve a lot of stress can be particularly prone to developing emotional eating. If stressors triggered by biological or environmental factors continue to frequently stimulate the release of glucocorticoids, it may not allow the body time to return to its normal cortisol levels. After a long time, this sustained increase in cortisol and appetite levels can put many at risk of weight gain and cardiovascular diseases.
Positive affect happens when faced with positive, happy emotions or situations. This is when people indulge themselves in celebration or because they feel as if they deserve it. Studies have shown that this is likely to occur with individuals who are underweight and normally eat less than the recommended amount of food. It can also be seen in individuals with restricted diets who are likely to allow themselves to indulge after being ‘good’ or feeling like they deserve it after a period of restriction.
Some of the signs of emotional eating are:
Reaching for chocolate or other snacks out of boredom or no reason
Not being able to stop cravings and eating at night
Not losing weight despite your efforts
Eating past your fullness cues
Eating when feeling emotional eg. Sad, angry, happy, anxious…etc.
Eating for comfort
Losing control around food or specific foods
Cravings even if eating full meals throughout the day
Rewarding yourself with food
Habit of finishing your plate even if you feel full
Never feeling full despite eating meals and snacks
The ability to differentiate between physical (biological) hunger from emotional hunger can feel complex however it is worth the effort as it can allow us to understand and listen to our body better. Understanding emotional hunger can often become easier when you’re able to identify physical (biological) hunger. This can take some practice, time and learning to eat a balance of foods while building a healthy relationship with food.
Please note that there can also be other underlying health issues that may prevent one from making sustainable changes or may be dangerous to attempt to make health changes on one’s own.
No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health professional.
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