Emotional eating, sometimes known as stress eating, can be defined as
using food to cope with life circumstances or feelings, typically difficult ones.
Sometimes the terms emotional eating and binge eating are used interchangeably, and although binges are often emotionally driven, not all emotional eating constitutes binge eating.
Key stressors which can trigger emotional eating include:
- Relationship issues / conflict
- Workplace stress / co-worker stress / workplace bullying
- Grief / loss
- Life transitions
- Financial difficulties
- Health Issues
Hard data on the prevalence of emotional eating is difficult, if not impossible to find. Anecdotally, in my Hamilton-based counselling practice, emotional eating is common, although there is a range when it comes to frequency and severity.
Most people are wise to the fact that the consumption of food, and certain foods in particular produce chemical ‘feel-good’ changes in the brain. Certain foods, particularly those high in fat and sugar, may counteract stress by inhibiting activity in the parts of the brain that create and process stress as well as related emotions, according to Harvard Health.
In other words, emotional eating can be inherently rewarding while also offering rewards in areas that extend beyond our physiology. Other such rewards can include:
- Social – For example, we often gather around food in social situations
- Psychological – Such as a “treat” after getting through a difficult experience
- Interpersonal – For example, mitigating conflict, such as “keeping the peace” when under social pressure
- Emotional – When food is used to cope with emotional needs such as reducing a sense of isolation, relieving boredom, quelling anxiety, providing focus or acting as a distraction
Rewards, however, can quickly be overshadowed by consequences, when eating becomes the “go to” coping strategy, such as:
- Social – Should emotional eating start to invoke feelings of shame, emotional eating may become a solo activity
- Psychological – Possible negative consequences can include: loss of self esteem, confidence, distorted / lack of sense of self
- Interpersonal – Emotionally eating in order to avoid important or challenging discussions
- Emotional – Heightened distress after episodes of emotional eating; feelings may include: shame, embarrassment, loss of control, anxiety, depression, anger / frustration, self loathing
- Physical – Effects may include uncomfortable feelings of fullness, suppression of hunger cues, sleep disruption, symptom exacerbation of pre-existing health conditions
Sometimes emotional eating can feel particularly overwhelming if its become very habitual, pervasive or we don’t have a handle on the extent of the problem. There are strategies, however, that can help. That will be my next post…
If you have questions about help for emotional eating, I am happy to hear from you! Don’t hesitate to be in touch.