Emotional eating is when you eat food to cope with difficult emotions. Because emotional eating has nothing to do with hunger, it is typical to eat a lot more calories than your body needs or will use.
The Food-Feeling Connection
Food can put a damper on stressful feelings, though the effect is temporary.
Foods high in fat, sugar, and salt can become more appealing when you are under stress, are in a bad mood, or feel bad about yourself.
Emotional eating often becomes a habit. If you have used food to soothe yourself in the past, you may crave candy or potato chips anytime you feel bad. The next time you are upset, it becomes even harder to say no to unhealthy food.
What Causes Emotional Eating
Everyone has bad days, but not everyone uses food to get through them. Some behaviors and thought patterns can increase your chance of becoming an emotional eater.
- If you have trouble managing your emotions, you may be more likely to use food for that purpose.
- Being unhappy with your body may make you more prone to emotional eating. This goes for both men and women.
- Dieting can put you at risk. If you feel deprived of food, you may be frustrated and tempted to emotionally eat.
What you can do
Observe yourself. Pay attention to your eating patterns and the people or events that make you want to overeat.
- Do you eat when you feel angry, depressed, hurt, or otherwise upset?
- Do you eat in response to certain people or situations?
- Do certain places or times of day trigger food cravings?
Develop new coping skills. The next time you want to use food for therapy, think about how else you might deal with the feelings that triggered that urge. You might:
- Take a class or read a book on managing stress.
- Talk about your feelings with a close friend.
- Go for a walk to clear your head. Your emotions might lose their force with time and space.
- Give yourself something else to think about, like a hobby, puzzle, or good book.
Value yourself. Getting in touch with your values and strengths can help you manage bad times without overeating.
- Write about things you care deeply about and why they matter to you. This may include your family, a social cause, religion, or a sports team.
- Write about things you have done that make you proud.
- Spend time doing things you are good at.
Eat slowly. Emotional eating often means you eat mindlessly and lose track of how much you've taken in. Make yourself slow down and pay attention to the food you are eating.
- Put down your fork between bites.
- Take a moment to taste your food before swallowing.
- If you indulge in something like cookies or fried chicken, limit the portion size.
- Do not eat in front of the TV or computer. It is too easy to overeat when you are distracted by what is on the screen in front of you.
Plan ahead. If you know a difficult or stressful time is coming up, set yourself up for healthy eating in advance.
- Plan healthy meals. Chop vegetables for salad or make a pot of broth-based soup ahead of time so you have hassle-free, filling meals waiting for you.
- Do not go hungry. When you are both hungry and stressed, pizza and other fast foods become much more tempting.
- Stock your kitchen with healthy snacks like hummus and carrot sticks.
Make comfort food healthier. Look for ways to prepare your favorite dishes with fewer calories.
- Use fat-free half-and-half or evaporated skim milk instead of whole milk or cream.
- Use 2 egg whites in place of 1 whole egg.
- Replace half the butter with applesauce when baking.
- Use cooking spray instead of oil or butter for cooking.
- Use brown or wild rice instead of white rice.
When to Contact a Health Professional
Talk to your health care provider if you have any of these symptoms of binge eating disorder:
- You often lose control of your eating.
- You often eat to the point of discomfort.
- You have intense feelings of shame about your body or your eating.
- You make yourself vomit after eating.
Obesity - emotional eating; Overweight - emotional eating; Diet - emotional eating; Weight loss - emotional meaning
Carter JC, Davis C, Kenny TE. Implications of food addiction for understanding and treating binge eating disorder. In: Johnson BLA, ed. Addiction Medicine: Science and Practice. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 34.
Cowley DS, Burke A, Lentz GM. Additional considerations in gynecologic care. In: Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, Lobo RA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 9.
Tanofsky-Kraff M. Eating disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2020:chap 206.
Review Date 8/15/2022
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.