Treating Emotional Eating via Virtual Coaching

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Emotional eating can cause a lot of distress. For people who don’t have access to mental healthcare, virtual coaching may be a promising solution for adults.

Using Virtual Coaching to Treat Emotional Eating

Emotional eating can negatively impact emotional and physical health. Even though this behavior alone doesn’t mean someone has an eating disorder, they still can benefit from treatment from a mental health professional.

However, access to mental healthcare can be limited and difficult to find. Researchers have been looking into if virtual coaching would be helpful for adults struggling with emotional eating.

What’s Emotional Eating & Why is It a Problem?

Emotional eating is when someone eats as a way to deal with difficult feelings. This behavior does temporarily get rid of the upsetting feelings, but the relief is only temporary. The upsetting feelings are most likely going to come back.

But, people who emotionally eat might feel shame and disgust after this. This can create a cycle of emotional eating to deal with negative feelings, feeling ashamed or guilty, and then using food to cope with the guilt and shame [1].

It’s not to say that food isn’t meant to be comforting. It’s part of our makeup as humans to feel calmer when we eat. This is partially due to the changes in blood sugar that come with feeling full [1]. It’s overeating that is a problem because it’s going against what someone’s body wants.

This can lead to being at an unhealthy weight, emotional distress, and low self-esteem [1]. If we look past the behavior to read between the lines a bit, emotional eating points to the fact that someone is struggling to manage upsetting feelings.

This signals the need for mental healthcare [1]. Mental health treatment can help someone learn how to manage their emotions and also work through any untreated mental health issues.

Depending on where someone lives and their financial situation, mental healthcare may not be accessible. It’s also possible that someone may have the means to get therapy, but there might be a long waitlist or not enough mental health providers. For this reason, researchers have been looking into virtual coaching sessions to see if they are helpful [2].

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What’s Coaching and How Does it Help with Emotional Eating?

Virtual coaching sessions are different than meeting with a mental health professional like a therapist or psychiatrist. Coaches can provide emotional support and help people make behavioral changes, but they can’t treat mental health issues. A recent study looked at how effective it is for adults struggling with emotional eating to talk with a coach over an app [1].

The study tried a few different approaches to figure out what is the most helpful thing for coaches to do when someone is tempted to engage in emotional eating and how to support them after an episode. The study showed that there were a few things that were the most helpful.


Participants in the study said that it was helpful to have their feelings validated when they had urges to emotionally eat [1]. Validation is when someone affirms someone else’s feelings as making sense for the situation they are in.

Insight into Emotions & Effective Coping Skills

Increasing their awareness of their emotions and finding ways to deal with them was really important for participants in the study. It’s not enough to just understand their feelings; people in this study also wanted to know what to do with them. Having coping skills for difficult feelings is important in preventing emotional eating [2].

Similarly, it was helpful for coaches to help participants understand the emotional purpose of emotional eating. This basically means that the participants wanted to understand what was going on behind the scenes that were leading to emotional eating [2]. A coach can help someone develop this awareness.

While this study was done in order to figure out the most effective strategy for a virtual coaching app, this information can help coaches who are already working with this population.

It’s also helpful to know that virtual coaching can be helpful in serving adults with emotional eating. This method may help bridge the gap between those who need help but don’t have access to mental healthcare.


[1] Dol, A., Bode, C., Velthuijsen, H., van Strien, T., & van Germert-Pijnen, L. (2021). Application of three different coaching strategies through a virtual coach for people with emotional eating: a vignette study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(13), 1-15.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published July 1, 2021, on
Reviewed & Approved on July 1, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC