Emotional Eating – What Is It?

“Emotional eating” is a fairly common issue for both men and women in the 21st Century. If you eat in response to your feelings, especially when you are not actually hungry, you are an emotional eater. This means that you let your emotions – not your body – dictate when and how much you eat.

Emotional eaters turn to food in response to negativity in their lives, such as a bad day at work or an argument with a friend. They may also turn to food when feeling particularly happy. Some such people knowingly use food to manipulate their emotions, while others are unaware of the connection between what they are feeling and what they are eating.

According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, there are a number of differences between physical hunger and emotional eating:

• Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, while physical hunger occurs gradually.

• When eating is not related to an empty stomach, you crave specific food (like pizza, or French fries), and only that food will suffice. When eating because you are actually hungry, you are open to food options.

• Emotional hunger is a craving which can be induced by anger, boredom, feeling tired or in need of reward. Emotional hunger can occur “just because” or simply because others are eating around you. Emotional hunger must be satisfied immediately; physical hunger can wait.

• When eating to satisfy an emotional need, you are likely to keep eating after you are full. When eating because you are hungry, you are more likely to stop when you aren’t hungry anymore.

• Emotional eating often leaves the person with feelings of guilt; eating when you are hungry does not.

The most distinguishing characteristic of emotional hunger is that you are focused on a particular food – usually a comfort food. Comfort foods are considered to be those that a person eats to obtain or maintain a particular feeling. Ice cream is #1 on the comfort food list. After ice cream, comfort foods tend to break down by gender. For women it’s chocolate and cookies; for men it’s pizza and grilled meat.

Studies have shown that the type of comfort food people are drawn to varies depending on their mood. People who are happy tend to prefer savory food, such as pizza. Sad people tend to reach for sweets, like ice cream or candy. And bored people often go to junk food like a bag of potato chips.

So might you be an emotional eater? Here are some tell-tale signs:

• You overeat during, or immediately following a stressful experience

• You eat excessive amounts of food in a short time period

• You eat until the point of discomfort

• You find it difficult to stop or limit your eating once you have begun

• You feel guilt or shame afterwards

There are often physical ramifications of emotional eating. These include:

• High blood pressure

• Adult-onset diabetes

• Malnutrition

• Obesity

• High cholesterol levels

• Digestive problems

• Anxiety

• Depression