What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is associated with overeating and eating disorders.

Many people use food to avoid their feelings. If you’re concerned about your own eating behaviors and patterns (or patterns of those you care about), you may find it helpful to better understand the connections between emotions and eating. Emotional eating is defined as eating that is influenced by emotions, and according to Jennifer Taitz, Ph.D., many people who struggle with difficult and painful emotions also struggle with eating problems.

Taitz is a clinical psychologist and author of the book End Emotional Eating. In her book, Taitz emphasizes that most overeating is prompted by feelings rather than physical hunger. Unfortunately, too many of us have learned to avoid painful emotions at all costs—particularly feelings of anger, sadness, grief and trauma—and we tend to struggle against those feelings rather than learn to accept and make space for these feelings. Emotional eating occurs when we turn to food to sooth or avoid our emotions. Here are some examples of what emotional eating looks like:

  • Numbing feelings with food
  • Feeling emotionally relieved while eating
  • Experiencing an intense craving for a particular food
  • Eating during or following a stressful experience
  • Eating alone to avoid others noticing

Ironically, many of the messages we receive throughout our lives about food, our bodies and our weight are steeped in stereotypes and stigma which can trigger painful feelings of shame, worthlessness and inadequacy. For some of us, these painful feelings may be connected to the reasons we turn to food to soothe ourselves in the first place.

How can people break the cycle of emotional eating? While stressing that this is not about dieting, Taitz shares several suggestions and exercises grounded in current research and practice. She emphasizes the importance of living fully while learning to accept, feel and regulate the expansive nature of all of our feelings. Taitz shares that struggling against our bodies and feelings brings stagnation and suffering — while accepting our bodies, situations and emotions is the pathway to positive change, freedom, joy and relief from the cycle of emotional eating. One of the most important things we can do is to learn to develop a healthy relationship with food—as well as a healthy relationship with our feelings.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources for addressing bullying, bias and harassment by fostering an acceptance of human diversity, nurturing social and emotional health and wellbeing, and creating inclusive, supportive climates with and on behalf of young people. Check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments for more information.

For more on emotional eating and the difference between actual hunger and cravings, read the MSU Extension article Emotional hunger.

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