Understanding Emotional Eating

Emotional Eating

Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place

Many people turn to food for comfort in times of stress, sadness, and anger. However, emotional eating habits like this only provide temporary relief and can quickly be followed by more negative emotions, like shame and guilt. This unhealthy cycle can cause emotional eaters to feel powerless when it comes to food, leaving them unable to cope in healthy ways.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating, also referred to as stress eating, involves using food to fill emotional needs rather than to relieve physical hunger. Emotional eaters might turn to food to reward themselves after a hard day, to cope with loneliness, or to calm anxious or sad thoughts. Using food to cope with emotions can involve eating even after feeling physically full and regularly consuming large amounts of food in one sitting.

In one study, 38% of American adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress in the previous month, and 34% said that this behavior was a habit [1]. Emotional eating can leave someone feeling powerless and unable to control their eating behaviors.

There are many different potential causes of emotional eating, including:

  • Boredom: Sometimes people eat because they want to have something to do. Food can temporarily help someone feel occupied and distracted from feelings of emptiness.
  • Stress: Stress can cause the body to produce high levels of the hormone cortisol, triggering cravings for fried, salty, and sweet foods [2].
  • Habits from childhood: Many parents reward their children for good behavior with their favorite foods. The idea of using food to reward oneself can carry over into adulthood. Others may eat to feel nostalgic, choosing foods from their childhood.
  • Socializing: Food is a big part of socializing with friends and family. For some, emotional eating is more tempting when they see everyone else eating.

Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger

To understand emotional eating, it’s important to know how emotional hunger differs from physical hunger. It can be difficult to tell the two apart, but there are key differences in the way someone feels before and after eating.

Physical hunger typically comes on gradually, while emotional hunger can feel very sudden. When someone is physically hungry, usually any food group sounds good, but when someone is emotionally hungry, they’ll crave certain comfort foods that are typically high in fat or sugar.

A person will feel full after feeding physical hunger but might not get this sensation when feeding emotional hunger, leading to overeating. They are also more likely to feel guilt and shame about eating after doing so to cope with negative emotions.

The Emotional Eating Cycle

Frequent emotional eating can cause an unhealthy cycle of using food to cope with negative feelings and then feeling guilt and shame. It can also lead to weight gain, body image concerns, and negative self-talk, putting some at risk for other unhealthy eating behaviors, like restricting calories.

Getting stuck in an emotional eating cycle can also cause a person to lack healthy coping mechanisms. By turning to food in times of distress, they may struggle to learn how to resolve the root cause of their eating habits.

Tips for Managing Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is an unhealthy habit that can be difficult to break. However, there are some ways to avoid it, including:

  • Practice meditation when feeling anxious
  • Reduce stress by being active
  • Keep a food diary to determine what triggers lead to emotional eating
  • Get rid of distractions like the TV or phone while eating
  • Try to avoid negative self-talk after emotional eating

Regular emotional eating can lead someone to feel out of control when it comes to food, resulting in binge eating, shame and guilt, and unresolved negative feelings. If you’re struggling to manage emotional eating, help is available.


[1] American Psychological Association. (2013). Stress and eating. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/eating#:~:text=Twenty%2Dseven%20percent%20of%20adults,a%20meal%20due%20to%20stress.

[2] Cleveland Clinic. (2021, July 1). How stress can make you eat more — or not at all. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-stress-can-make-you-eat-more-or-not-at-all/#:~:text=When%20you’re%20feeling%20stressed,threat%20is%20causing%20the%20stress.

About The Sponsor

McCallum Place is an eating disorder treatment center with locations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas.

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 February 9, 2022 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on March 12, 2024, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC