Emotional eating is the act of seeking solace in food. The condition is statistically more common in women than men, although most people will reach for food at some point in their lives as a way of coping with a trying time – when they are feeling down, depressed or temporarily in need of comfort. The trigger could be anything from relationship or health worries to work or financial difficulties.
Emotional eating becomes a problem when the eating itself is done in lieu of experiencing the emotion, that is, when you eat "in order to suppress, distract from or overcome difficult emotions", says Dr Catherine Frogley, clinical psychologist at the LightHouse Arabia well-being centre. "Most of us can relate to this. For example, you may find yourself eating certain foods to soothe yourself after a bad day at work or when dealing with a stressful life event. However, this becomes dangerous when it becomes a frequent way to manage your emotions and when you are consuming abnormally large amounts of food to achieve this. It often leads to feelings of guilt and shame, and in some cases excessive weight gain."
Frogley defines the relationship a person has with food as complex. “Food is essential for our survival and therefore we all have a biological need for it. Its necessity means that, on a psychological level, food often signals safety, security and comfort.
“However, we have also incorporated food into social aspects of our life. It is almost always part of occasions such as celebrations, weddings, funerals, etc, and therefore it reminds us of people, triggers memories and helps us to feel connected.
“Furthermore, food, in particular high-fat and high-sugar foods, stimulates parts of the brain responsible for reward. As such, if we need to feel good, we may seek food to achieve this if we don’t have other ways of feeling good.”
The science behind emotional eating
Complex as the relationship may be, the biochemistry between stressful situations and our desire to reach for food is relatively straightforward. Stress causes the adrenal glands to produce more of the stress-response hormone, cortisol. And cortisol not only increases appetite, but also motivation, making for a double whammy when it comes to eating: creating both the craving for food and the impulse to consume it.
In the short-term, stress can suppress the appetite as the nervous system signals the adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, which triggers the body's fight-or-flight response and puts the appetite on hold. Problems arise, however, when stress persists. Then the adrenal glands switch to producing cortisol, which increases appetite. Prolonged stress can keep a person's state of stress stuck in the "on" position, keeping cortisol levels elevated.
“During stressful times, our bodies will often crave high-calorie foods, as these provide energy bursts and activate the pleasure centre of our brain, which can help regulate difficult emotions,” says Nadia Brooker, an eating disorder psychologist at the Priory Well-being Centre in Dubai. “Because stress elevates cortisol levels, it can also increase our appetite.”
Ironically, physical satisfaction has little or nothing to do with emotional eating. "Emotional eaters view food as something that gives pleasure and excitement, rather than something that satisfies hunger. One patient told me that she lives to eat rather than eats to live," says Lina Doumani, a nutritionist at Medcare's Camali Clinic for mental health. "Emotional eaters approach food as a mood regulator, which helps lower negative feelings and lift their spirits. However, they also view food as dangerous and something they are always in constant battle with. A constant love-hate relationship with food is evident among emotional eaters."
Emotional eating during the pandemic
Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has been a trigger for emotional eating among many. The internet might be awash with jokes and memes about people spending their lockdowns eating so much they now only fit into clothes with elasticated waistbands, but behind the humour are some sobering statistics.
A recent YouGov survey, of more than 2,000 people commissioned by the British Nutrition Foundation, which looked at how Covid-19 has affected diet and fitness, revealed that 27 per cent of people admitted they were eating less healthily, and 48 per cent did not feel “motivated” enough to eat well. “Boredom” was cited by 63 per cent of respondents as the main reason they were eating unhealthier foods.
“It is likely we are all experiencing elevated amounts of anxiety, loneliness, anger or even boredom at the moment, which may make some people more vulnerable to engaging in these types of behaviours,” says Brooker. “Using food as an emotional crutch can quickly become the norm and may lead to disordered eating patterns.”
Effects on physical health
Emotional eating is more prevalent among those who are overweight, with Frogley citing a study that showed 60 per cent of those who are overweight are also classified as emotional eaters. However, she adds: “You don’t have to be overweight to be an emotional eater. In fact, emotional eating can also affect those who suffer from disordered eating, who may in fact be underweight.”
One of the main reasons a majority of emotional eaters are overweight, though, is because of the types of foods most seek comfort in. “Typically, feel-good foods that people tend to crave are sugary and carb-rich, such as chocolate, crisps or sweets,” says Brooker. “These can encourage dopamine and serotonin production, the latter is sometimes referred to as the ‘happy chemical’ due to its impact on mood. As such, eating these types of foods can be seen as a means to change the way we feel, albeit temporarily, before feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, depression, and generally poorer health take hold.”
Breaking the cycle
There are a host of telltale signs to look out for when determining emotional eating, including: eating large amounts of food when stressed, anxious or feeling low; using food to distract yourself from feelings or stressful life events; seeking comfort in food; excessive weight gain and trouble losing weight; eating in secret; and significant feelings of guilt and shame after eating.
“Hunger based on emotion is sometimes called ‘emotional hunger’,” says Frogley. “It is often sudden and urgent. It may include cravings for specific foods such as ice cream or pizza, and an individual may eat more than normal in one go. Whereas physical hunger can often wait and be fulfilled with a variety of foods.”
Doumani adds: “Formulating a meal plan only for emotional eaters in most cases is a failing route. For sure, eating patterns must be organised, and a meal plan must be formulated; however, it can be useless if it is not supported by behavioural tools that deal with the emotional eating.
“The emotional eater must be empowered with coping mechanisms that help break the cycle, and working with a psychologist to deal with the underlying causes of the negative feelings can help the emotional eater better cope and reach a peaceful relationship with food. As I always say to my patients: it’s very healthy to be unhealthy some of the times, but not all the time.”
‘I suffered from emotional eating’
Pitch Perfect actress Rebel Wilson recently revealed she turned to emotional eating as a way to cope with fame. "I was jet-setting all around the world and eating a tonne of sugar. That was kind of my vice. I have a very sweet tooth; I love desserts," the Australian star revealed on The Drew Barrymore Show.
"I've tried, like so many women, fads and diets, and I'm like: 'I need a holistic approach this time.' What I mainly suffered from was emotional eating and dealing with the stress of becoming famous internationally. I guess my way of dealing with it was eating doughnuts." Since identifying herself as an emotional eater and adjusting her eating and lifestyle habits, the actress has lost 18 kilograms.