The Ins and Outs of Emotional Eating & Its Impact on Weight Gain

The Impact Of Emotional Eating!

Images of donuts and chocolate

 When it comes to consuming food, the most likely cause is because you are hungry and your body is asking you for nutrition but for some, that’s not the only time when they reach for food. Emotional eating is defined as having the urge to eat, often in large quantities of unhealthy foods, as a response to negative feelings such as boredom, stress, anger, or sorrow.

What a lot of individuals don’t realize is that you can actually emotionally eat when experiencing happy emotional events as well, such as joyous occasions like weddings and parties.

Unfortunately, those who suffer from emotional eating may find themselves with a whole host of weight-related health problems due to weight gain, such as high blood pressure, fatigue, and diabetes.

In this article, we will take a look at how repetitive emotional eating leads to weight gain, how to tackle emotional eating for weight loss, and tips for choosing healthier options.

Why Food & Eating is Tied to Emotions

For the majority of people, food is tied to our emotions to some degree or another. This is because we are trained from birth to link food to affection, enjoyment, entertainment, and fun.

When we consume food at pleasurable events like weddings and parties and we have a good time, the social aspect of eating with others solidifies the good feelings we get when we eat.

Lady with head in hands emotional eating

Beyond this, when we consume an item when we are feeling bored or down, it abates the negative mood to a degree as the food stimulates our senses and releases endorphins like dopamine. This essentially fills the void that we are feeling and creates a false sense of fullness within us. 

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It is important to note though that if an individual is experiencing other types of symptoms such as a poor support structure, social anxiety, or an inability to understand the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, these can contribute to the individual lapsing into emotional eating scenarios.

Common factors include the following, retreating from social support during emotional times of need, not engaging in stress-relieving activities, not understanding when they are physically hungry, engaging in negative self-talk, or succumbing to cravings that are a result of high-stress situations. 

What Does Emotional Eating Look Like? 

For most individuals, emotional eating may be hard to spot if you have been conditioned to it over the entirety of your life. However, there are some warning signs that you can look out for if you believe you are suffering from emotional eating.

The first is a tendency to get an intense need to eat because you feel like you are hungry all of the sudden, which is the opposite of what real hunger looks like.

Woman eating healthy food to avoid emotional eating

The second is that if you are craving junk food rather than say balanced meals like chicken, rice, and broccoli, which proceeds right after an uncomfortable emotion, situation, or circumstances like frustration, sadness, or guilt. Finally, if you feel like you lack control over food and you always feel guilty after eating. 

Is There a Difference Between Emotional Eating and Binge Eating?

Although the difference is quite subtle, there is one. With emotional eating and binge eating, the difference is in the amount of food consumed over a period of time.

To clarify, when an individual is emotionally eating they will consume moderate to severe amounts of food right, whereas a binge eater will consume a significant amount of food than what an average individual would consume over “X” amount of time.

Woman eating Mcdonalds fries emotional eating

For instance, a binge eater may consume three, four, five, six plates of food during dinner while someone who is emotionally eating may consume more food than they normally do but not in such a way that it would be exorbitant over the period of time that they ate the food.

Beyond this, someone with a binge eating disorder will often conceal the amount eaten, eat out of shame, and occur on average once per week over several months. 

What is the Correlation Between Emotional Eating and Weight Gain?

According to Emotional Eating and Weight in Adults: a Review, which was published in Current Psychology, higher levels of emotional eating over long periods of time is a predictor of weight gain, while lifestyle factors such as dietary habits, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol have a lesser impact on overall weight levels.

This suggests that emotional eating habits have an independent effect on whether an individual gains weight, which can be attributed to uncontrolled eating patterns during an emotional episode or the employ of self-soothing techniques. The study also found that emotional eating does have a moderation association or relationship with overeating and when combined over time, also contributes to weight gain. 

Man overeating burger and fries emotional eating

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As we all know, the study points out that emotional eating is linked to the overconsumption of high fat and high sugar foods, but when consumed in individuals who are active emotional eaters, they had no correlation to weight gain. Whereas, in emotional eaters that have low physical activity levels, there was a direct link between overeating, emotional eating, and weight gain. 

Is There a Link Between Emotional Eating and Weight Loss?

In emotional eaters who are able to reduce their baseline emotional eating habits, meaning how frequently they emotionally eat on a regular basis, do see a reduction in weight.

However, in order to curb emotional eating to gain weight loss results, one must become mindful and aware of when emotional eating occurs, why it is occurring (triggers), and how they can address it right then and there. With this said, let’s briefly go over common triggers and how to cope with them.

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  • Boredom Hits Hard: the reason why boredom always comes up with emotional eating is not because of the actual act of being bored and doing nothing, but from the lonely or uncomfortable feeling that stems from doing nothing. When this happens, we fill it with eating as that is something that we have easy access to and it makes us feel good. A great coping suggestion would be to create a list of activities that you can do when you feel bored and make a commitment to do any one of these activities for “X” amount of time before turning to food. 
Emotional Eating
  • Avoiding Unpleasant Emotions: this is common as eating soothes emotions like anxiety and sadness. It can also help with subtle emotions that you can’t quite put your finger on. Eating will put you into a comfort zone so to speak, even when you’re not hungry. A coping strategy would be to practice emotional tolerance and understand that emotions will pass and that they are temporary. Choose to distract yourself with exercise, reading, or taking a bath instead.
  • Being Unaware of the Habit: it is very easy to get into the habit of eating mindlessly as a way of numbing yourself so you are not within or aware of your current surroundings. A very easy example of this would be eating in front of the television. We’ve all been there where before we know it, the entire bag of chips is gone. A coping strategy would be to practice mindfulness and be present in your current environment. Don’t zone out!
  • Dealing With Urgent Desire to Eat: when you eat something that you enjoy and you know that there is more in the kitchen, your brain creates a sense of urgency and pushes you to eat more when you shouldn’t. Practice using delay techniques. Tell yourself you can have more cake or pie tomorrow or on the weekend instead.
  • Fatigue: your body craves food when you are tired. Avoid this by taking a nap or heading to bed.
  • Creating Pleasure: we automatically associate food with good times, social events, and pleasure and so we turn to it to create a pleasurable experience when we are feeling down. A coping strategy would be to replace the need to have food with other pleasurable experiences like hanging out with your dog or reading a good book.

No matter what type of emotions you are feelings that drive you to overeat, it is imperative that you become aware of the unhealthy cycle that emotional eating creates and employ tactics that are going to get you to lower how often you engage in it.

If you are unable to gain control over the eating, whether that be through displacement tactics, a food journal, or stress reduction, consider getting yourself into a few therapy sessions as a way to learn and discover coping skills. By enlarging your tolerance levels, you can eventually break the cycle that emotions and food create.

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