Weight gain: it's emotional, say researchers

Emotional eating could be a significant contributor or cause of overeating as much as 88 per cent of the time

To lose weight is the most popular New Year’s resolution people make, year after year. However, within a short while, most of these resolutions have been broken, often leaving people with a sense of failure and disappointment in themselves. One factor that contributes to this lack of success is known as “emotional eating”.

Sometimes referred to as “comfort eating”, this occurs when people use food to manage or change unpleasant feelings, including worry, depression, loneliness and boredom. It usually involves consumption of sweet, fatty and energy-dense foods with a high concentration of calories, such as cakes and biscuits.

Research studies have estimated that emotional eating may be a significant contributor or cause of overeating as much as 88 per cent of the time.

Overeating of such energy-dense foods for emotional reasons has been cited as a major contributor to the type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemic. Therefore, the benefits of recognising and addressing this problem are potentially huge.


However, research indicates that even when people seek medical advice and help for this problem, it is rare for emotional causes for their overeating to be explored by their doctor.

Emotional hunger

While physical hunger usually starts in the stomach, is gradual and is not related to a specific food, emotional hunger tends to start in the mouth or head, comes on suddenly, craves a specific food and does not usually stop even when the person feels full.

Often the emotional eater is eating “mindlessly”; that is, eating quickly, and not paying particular attention to the amount consumed. They often do not especially enjoy what they are eating and frequently feel ashamed or guilty afterwards.

Causes of emotional eating It has been shown that people frequently experience more negative and stressful feelings prior to an emotional eating episode. Stress affects our eating behaviour through the action of one of the stress hormones, cortisol, which causes us to crave sugary and high-fat foods.

These give us a burst of energy, but subsequently lead to the “sugar crash” that causes us to feel irritable and tired again. Also, a carbohydrate-rich diet allows more of an essential amino acid called tryptophan into the brain which helps to maintain a balanced mood.

Emotional eaters use food as a solution to numb themselves or distract themselves from their negative feelings. In addition, there is evidence that emotional stress can result in a decrease or failure in self-control.

Daily hassles are situations, events or thoughts that produce negative feelings, such as frustration, annoyance and worry and an awareness that one’s goals and plans will be more difficult to achieve. A number of research studies have found that such daily hassles are associated with unhealthy eating behaviours.

The learned association from childhood of food as a reward and comforter also influences eating behaviour as an adult and the continued use of treat foods to help the person to feel better leads to ongoing emotional eating. Nostalgia and warm memories of eating certain foods with family can lead a person to use these foods to overcome feelings of loneliness and sadness.

Advertisements for food products have a more potent, persuasive influence on emotional eaters than on non-emotional eaters.

One woman described how she was trying to lose weight before going on holidays, but saw an advertisement on TV for ice-cream when she was feeling somewhat sad and had to go to the shop straight away to get the ice-cream.

The power of such advertising is so strong that some emotional eaters make great efforts to avoid the ads. Even the packaging of such products exerts an influence, but research shows that emotional eaters tend to prefer to remain unaware of the nutritional information contained on this packaging, perhaps to stop them feeling guilty.

Social eating in the company of family and friends can also serve as an opportunity to engage in emotional eating. Emotional eaters have been reported to consume more food in such settings and this has been suggested to be due to apparent social approval for their behaviour. However, non-emotional eaters are less likely to overconsume under these circumstances.

How to deal with and reduce emotional eating:

Keep a food diary to record episodes of what, where and when you eat, as well as your mood and thoughts at the time and afterwards. This is invaluable in assisting you to identify your patterns and triggers for emotional eating and what feelings you are trying to manage through eating. People who keep such diaries tend to be much more successful in making positive changes to their eating patterns.

Start dealing more effectively with the physical symptoms of stress and tension by practising progressive muscle relaxation and regular exercise, which have been shown to reduce tension and improve mood and confidence.

Use problem-solving techniques to start solving the problems that you may be currently trying to manage through emotional eating, such as those daily hassles, work or relationship problems.

These involve firstly identifying the problem(s), setting goals and solutions that you would like to achieve, thinking of steps and strategies that will help you to achieve your goals, practising these, reviewing your progress and continuing to make changes where needed.

Rather than saying that you cannot have the desired food at all, tell yourself that you can have it later. This results in wanting that food less and consuming less of it.

Eat mindfully by bringing your full attention to what you are eating. Involve all your senses by looking at your food, inhaling the aroma of it, noticing the texture of the food, really tasting it and chewing fully before swallowing. Make eating a “pure” activity by not doing other things while you are eating, such as reading or watching television.

Eat more of the healthier foods that are sources of chemicals and nutrients that help to improve mood, such as turkey, eggs, oily fish, nuts, sesame seeds, cheese and dark chocolate.

Have a list of alternative enjoyable and distracting activities that you could engage in when you feel the urge to eat for non-physical hunger reasons.

Have realistic expectations of yourself. Small steps are more attainable and lead to better long-term outcomes, and don’t be too disappointed by any setbacks that may occur.

Seek the help and support of friends and family.

Talk to an appropriate health professional if you feel that you need additional support to reduce emotional eating and address the underlying problems that contributed to it and are still triggering it. Often a good first person to discuss your concerns with is your GP, who can advise regarding further professional supports that may be of benefit.

Dr Alison Rooney is a clinical psychologist. dralisonrooney.com

Signs of emotional eating

Do you eat more when you’re feeling tense or stressed?

Do you eat when you’re not hungry or already feeling full?

Do you reward yourself with food?

Do you eat to help yourself to feel better when you're feeling tired, sad, bored, lonely or anxious?

Do you feel preoccupied with and "out of control" around certain foods, such as chocolate, crisps, cakes and biscuits?

Do you feel guilty and angry with yourself after eating these foods?

Do you sometimes eat these foods in secret?