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  • Writer's pictureMichael McEntee

Emotional Eating isn't Straightforward

Research shows that people who identify as emotional eaters are more likely to overeat in response to simply being around food, and the complications that come with attempts to restrict consumption of such food — cutting calories, cutting carbs, cutting out dessert — can lead to emotional eating due to physical and psychological deprivation.

To better understand this, consider three suggested purposes for eating:

1. Hunger and fullness, or using food for fuel. When we listen to hunger, and move to comfortable fullness, we satisfy the fueling aspects of eating.

2. Cravings and satisfaction, which are considered both biologically driven and legitimate.

3. Emotional or stress eating. You eat because you are lonely, or sad, or a little depressed … that happens to all of us. In reality, we don’t want this to be our main way of eating.

A vicious circle

Labelling a certain food “forbidden” can create psychological deprivation, which means you can still feel deprived of this food when you’re physically full. Then, if you eat that food and become overfull, it’s easy to label your eating as “emotional” instead of recognising that making the food forbidden caused the overeating — and the solution is to remove that restriction. The irony comes as food restriction makes you more likely to overeat “emotionally,” but emotional eating can cause distress and guilt, potentially prompting you to restrict your food in an attempt to get your eating “under control.” Hence, creating a vicious cycle.

Is emotional eating always a problem?

Psychological deprivation doesn’t just stem from food restriction — it can come from restriction in other areas of your life, like sleep, social connection, fun, self-care or down time. Emotional eating can be a signal that your needs aren’t being met, that something needs to change. Consider it the canary in the coal mine.

There’s no denying that emotional eating does offer temporary relief from uncomfortable feelings, otherwise no one would do it — eating in response to emotions is completely normal, some of the time. In fact, using food for comfort is something we often learn early. As children, we have a limited ability to self-soothe because our brains are still developing. If your parents gave you food to make you feel better, you’re likely to do the same as an adult, often subconsciously. If you experienced emotional or physical trauma or neglect as a child and found solace in food, untangling those patterns as an adult can be even more challenging.

As adults, we can start to develop other ways of coping, but it’s important not to blame ourselves for doing what we needed to do to survive. Once you get to know the bigger picture, it all makes sense. Occasionally using food to lift your spirits is probably no big deal, but leaning heavily on food for comfort is counterproductive. Emotions are information, and when we numb out or distract ourselves with food, we aren’t really listening to that information, which can prevent us from meeting an underlying emotional or physical need. Awareness of when you are eating to self-soothe is a first step to breaking unhelpful eating patterns, but curiosity is also key. The next time you feel upset, try to identify exactly what you are feeling. Sadness? Anger? Disappointment? Rejection? That’s information you can use to start finding real solutions.

One simple tool you can use when you have the urge to comfort eat: H.A.L.T. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired?” If you are hungry, you need to eat — but ask yourself if that pint of ice cream is the best way to satisfy hunger. If you aren’t hungry, but you do decide to eat for comfort, ask yourself how much food will do the trick. It might be less than you think.

Extracts taken from Carrie Dennett from

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