Finding comfort in food is common. People find it can help to suppress or soothe negative feelings, but this only works temporarily.
The fundamental reason we eat food is to provide our bodies with the nutrients and energy we need to function. But, we often eat for other reasons too. We eat in response to our emotions, in times of celebration, or when socialising with others – and research shows that when we eat in response to our emotions, we tend to overeat.
In fact, emotional eating has been found to be positively associated with greater odds of overeating, greater intake of energy-dense foods, and higher body weight or obesity (Lopez-Cepero et al., 2019).
Associate Professor Esben Strodl, from the School of Psychology and Counselling at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), says emotional eating is most often defined as overeating in response to negative emotions. It is distinctly different to intuitive eating or restrained eating.
‘Intuitive eating is where you eat in response to the physiological cues of hunger and satiety,’ Strodl tells Wellbeing by Teacher. ‘Fundamentally, we eat to provide our bodies with nutrients and energy and our body gives signals when we need more nutrients or more energy and then in response, we eat. That’s what intuitive eating is, we eat in response to those cues, as opposed to other cues like social cues or emotional cues.
‘Restrained eating refers to a deliberate decision to restrict our eating, usually for a purpose of losing weight, body shape or appearance. Colloquially we call this dieting. In those cases, often people ignore or deny their cues for hunger or satiety.’
Turning to food in times of stress
Strodl says the research he’s involved in suggests that it’s not necessarily the experience of negative emotions that’s related to emotional eating, but rather, how people interpret those emotions.
‘We all experience highs and lows – we experience stress or anxiety or depressive symptoms but not everybody eats in response to those emotions. A lot of it seems to do with how you interpret those emotions,’ he says.
‘If you interpret those negative emotions as overwhelming, uncontrollable, dangerous, contagious, or anything like that, then to rid yourself of those feelings you’re going to turn to potential coping strategies,’ Strodl adds.
While some people turn to alcohol, gambling, or other problematic behaviours to manage their emotions, eating tends to be a really common coping strategy for many Australians.
‘Food is relatively cheap in this country, it’s easy to access and it doesn’t have the stigma associated with other coping strategies – so it’s a common coping strategy for trying to suppress negative emotions,’ Strodl says.
Understanding your emotional triggers
Strodl explains that emotional eating can be triggered by any negative emotion, but common ones include stress, anxiety, depression, boredom or guilt.
‘We did look at a study a few years ago (we still need to publish) that looked at what types of emotions were associated with emotional eating and certainly stress, anxiety, depression were the most common ones. Self-loathing seemed to be another common one as well – so it can be range of different emotions.’
It is therefore important to understand what triggers your reaction to these emotions and make a concerted effort to change the way you respond.
‘Learning what the triggers are for your emotional eating, which particular emotions are most likely to be trigger emotions and then, more importantly, how you interpret those emotions, is critical to changing your behaviour,’ Strodl says. ‘You need to work out why you think it’s so bad to experience certain emotions, and why you feel like you need to try and get rid of those emotions.’
In early 2021, Strodl and his colleagues published a study in the Journal of Eating Disorders where they looked at trying to help people better understand their emotions and emotional triggers. They specifically looked at people who had a bingeing disorder.
‘Bingeing disorder is a more severe form of emotional eating,’ Strodl explains. ‘Someone who binge eats would probably eat within a two-hour block the same as what someone would eat in a whole day and often it’s a result of emotional triggers or cravings. It’s a very severe eating problem.
‘Traditionally, to treat it you try and help people change their eating behaviours and change their beliefs about food and their perceptions of themselves. In this study, all we did was help people to identify their emotional triggers, to understand that emotions are information about what their underlying needs are and to be able to just accept their emotions. We found a huge reduction in their binge eating behaviour just as a result of doing that.’
Strategies to manage your emotional eating
Strodl says that he runs a set of interventions in his research studies that have proved to be useful with participants.
‘One is to really become better aware of the link between emotions, your beliefs about emotions, and your eating. So, we get people to monitor that in the first week or two by just simply reflecting each day on when they ate more, what the emotional trigger was, what their thoughts were about that emotion and to reflect upon these associations.’
The next thing he asks people to do is to engage in a process called ‘detached mindfulness’.
‘We encourage people to use mindfulness on their emotions such as when they’re experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, or anything like that – to become mindful about their emotions. We ask people to observe them and to pay attention to those experiences without judging them.’
Strodl says he also encourages people to question their beliefs about their emotions. If people really do fear their emotions, he asks that they explore how dangerous they really are and consider what purpose the emotion serves.
‘We ask people to sit with their negative emotions and prove to themselves that nothing bad happens when they experience those emotions. Negative emotions come and they go and they provide useful information for us about our underlying needs, but they are not something that we always need to try and get rid of. Often it is the act of trying to get rid of negative emotions (that is, the coping strategies that we use) that causes the greatest problems to our lives. This can certainly be the case with emotional eating ’
If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
Glisenti, K., Strodl, E., King, R., & Greenberg, L. (2021). The feasibility of emotion-focused therapy for binge-eating disorder: a pilot randomised wait-list control trial. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(1), 1-15.
Lopez-Cepero, A., Frisard, C. F., Lemon, S. C., & Rosal, M. C. (2019). Association between emotional eating, energy-dense foods and overeating in Latinos. Eating Behaviors, 33, 40–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2019.03.001
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