Emotional eatingis defined as overeating in order to relieve negative emotions. Thus, emotional eating is considered a maladaptive coping strategy. If an individual frequently engages in emotional eating, it can increase the risk of developing other eating disorders, like bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Research has also shown that the presence of an existing eating disorder increases the likelihood that an individual will engage in emotional eating. Given the relationship between serious eating disorders and emotional eating behavior, it is important for clinical psychologists and nutritionists to recognize the signs of emotional eating and provide individuals with treatment. Since emotional eating is utilized to manage negative emotions, treatment necessitates learning healthy and more effective coping strategies.
Emotional eating is a form of disordered eating and is defined as “an increase in food intake in response to negative emotions” and can be considered a maladaptive strategy used to cope with difficult feelings. More specifically, emotional eating would qualify as a form of emotion-focused coping, which attempts to minimize, regulate and prevent emotional distress. Interestingly, a study conducted by Bennett et al. found that emotional eating sometimes does not reduce emotional distress but instead enhances emotional distress by sparking feelings of intense guilt after an emotional eating session. Not only is emotional eating a poor way to cope, but those individuals who frequently utilize emotional eating to cope with social or psychological stressors are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders. Emotional eaters are at an especially high risk of developing binge-eating disorder. 2.8% of Americans struggle with binge-eating disorder, which increases their risk of developing cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. At the same time, the presence of other eating disorders increases the risk of an individual engaging in emotional eating. In a clinical setting, emotional eating disorders can be diagnosed by the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire which contains a scale for restrained, emotional and external eating. While therapists may use positive psychology as a way to reduce the negative emotions that trigger emotional eating, reappraisal is often a complementary treatment with the primary treatment being focused on developing alternative coping strategies.
Current research suggests that certain individual factors may increase one’s likelihood of using emotional eating as a coping strategy. The inadequate affect regulation theory posits that individuals engage in emotional eating because they believe overeating alleviates negative feelings. Escape theory builds upon inadequate affect regulation theory by suggesting that people not only overeat to cope with negative emotions, but they find that overeating diverts their attention away from a stimuli that is threatening self-esteem to focus on a pleasurable stimuli like food. Restraint theory suggests that overeating as a result of negative emotions occurs among individuals who already restrain their eating. While these individuals typically limit what they eat, when they are faced with negative emotions they cope by engaging in emotional eating. Restraint theory supports the idea that individuals with other eating disorders are more likely to engage in emotional eating. Together these three theories suggest that an individual’s aversion to negative emotions, particularly negative feelings that arise in response to a threat to the ego or intense self-awareness, increase the propensity for the individual to utilize emotional eating as a means of coping with this aversion.
The biological stress response may also contribute to the development of emotional eating tendencies. In a crisis, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is secreted by the hypothalamus, suppressing appetite and triggering the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal gland. These steroid hormones increase appetite and, unlike CRH, remain in the bloodstream for a prolonged period of time, often resulting in hyperphagia. Those who experience this biologically instigated increase in appetite during times of stress are therefore primed to rely on emotional eating as a coping mechanism.
Overall, high levels of the negative affect trait are related to emotional eating. Negative affectivity is a personality trait involving negative emotions and poor self-concept. It has been found that certain negative affect regulation scales predicted emotional eating. Additionally, a study conducted by Bennett et al. found that individuals engage in emotional eating only when they are experiencing negative emotions. More specifically, an inability to articulate and identify one’s emotions made the individual feel inadequate at regulating negative affect and thus more likely to engage in emotional eating. A study conducted by Spoor et al. attempted to further delineate the relationship between negative affect and emotional eating. They found that negative affect was not significantly related to emotional eating when taking into consideration emotion focused coping and avoidance distraction behavior. This suggests that negative affect is not independently related to emotional eating but is instead indirectly related through emotional focused coping and avoidance distraction behavior. While Spence and Spoor’s findings differed somewhat, they both suggest that negative affect does play a role in emotional eating but it may be accounted for by other variables.
Emotional eating itself may be a precursor to developing eating disorders such as binge eating or bulimia nervosa. The relationship between emotional eating and other disorders is largely due to the fact that that emotional eating and these disorders share key characteristics. More specifically, they are both related to emotion focused coping, maladaptive coping strategies, and a strong aversion to negative feelings and stimuli. It is important to note that the causal direction has not been definitively established, meaning that while emotional eating is considered a precursor to these eating disorders, it may be also be the consequence of these disorders. The latter hypothesis that emotional eating happens in response to another eating disorder is supported by research that has shown emotional eating to be more common among individuals already suffering from bulimia nervosa.
Biological and environmental factors
Individual differences in the physiological stress response may also contribute to the development of emotional eating habits. Those whose adrenal glands naturally secrete larger quantities of glucocorticoids in response to a stressor are more inclined toward hyperphagia, which can act as a physiological catalyst for emotional eating. Additionally, those whose bodies require more time to clear the bloodstream of excess glucocorticoids are similarly predisposed. These biological factors can interact with environmental elements to further trigger hyperphagia, namely the type of stressor the individual is subjected to. Frequent intermittent stressors trigger repeated, sporadic releases of glucocorticoids broken up by intervals too short to allow for a complete return to baseline levels, leading to increased appetite. Those whose lifestyles or careers entail frequent intermittent stressors thus have greater biological incentive to develop patterns of emotional eating.
Emotional eating may qualify as avoidant coping and/or emotion-focused coping. As coping methods that fall under these broad categories focus on temporary reprieve rather than practical resolution of stressors, they can initiate a vicious cycle of maladaptive behavior reinforced by fleeting relief from stress. Additionally, in the presence of high insulin levels characteristic of the recovery phase of the stress-response, glucocorticoids trigger the creation of an enzyme that stores away the nutrients circulating in the bloodstream after an episode of emotional eating as visceral fat, or fat located in the abdominal area. Therefore, those who struggle with emotional eating are at greater risk for abdominal obesity, which is in turn linked to a greater risk for metabolic and cardiovascular disease.
There are numerous ways in which individuals can reduce emotional distress without engaging in emotional eating. The most salient choice is to minimize maladaptive coping strategies and to maximize adaptive strategies. A study conducted by Corstorphine et al. in 2007 investigated the relationship between distress tolerance and disordered eating. These researchers specifically focused on how different coping strategies impact distress tolerance and disordered eating. They found that individuals who engage in disordered eating often employ emotional avoidance strategies. If an individual is faced with strong negative emotions, they may choose to avoid the situation by distracting themselves through overeating. Discouraging emotional avoidance is thus an important facet to emotional eating treatment. The most obvious way to limit emotional avoidance is to confront the issue through techniques like problem solving. Corstorphine et al. showed that individuals who engaged in problem solving strategies enhance one’s ability to tolerate emotional distress. Since emotional distress is correlated to emotional eating, the ability to better manage one’s negative affect should allow an individual to cope with a situation without resorting to overeating.
One way to combat emotional eating is to employ mindfulness techniques. For example, approaching cravings with a nonjudgmental inquisitiveness can help differentiate between hunger and emotionally-driven cravings. An individual may ask his or herself if the craving developed rapidly, as emotional eating tends to be triggered spontaneously. An individual may also take the time to note his or her bodily sensations, such as hunger pangs, and coinciding emotions, like guilt or shame, in order to make conscious decisions to avoid emotional eating.