Are You an Emotional Eater?

Your work is piling up at the office. Your high school reunion is next week and you hardly feel ready. On top of that, you don’t have even five lousy minutes to devote any time to yourself. Are your hands rummaging around in the cookie jar yet? If so, you may be an emotional eater and you're not alone. Emotional eaters tend to reach for comfort foods when they are stressed, sad, bored, lonely or depressed. These comfort foods tend to be sweet confections or salty snacks loaded with calories and fat. Consistently eating too much of these foods can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

Why It Happens
Experts say that people eat during moments of emotional turmoil to help them cope with their feelings. You may find yourself suddenly eating excessively during and after a major emotional crisis, such as a divorce or job loss. Or, you may find that life’s day-to-day stresses like commuting to work are enough to get you binging on cupcakes. Scientists are not sure why certain people find eating to be soothing during times of emotional upheaval. Some evidence indicates that the body releases mood-elevating chemicals in response to some foods, such as chocolate. Eating may also act as a simple distraction from the emotions that are bubbling up inside you. Research also indicates that some severely restrictive diets that promise weight loss may lead to increased emotional eating. Some popular diets do not provide enough calories to meet a basic daily energy requirements. In effect, these diets place people in a state similar to starvation, which then can lead to overeating. Whatever the reason, science is finding increasing evidence of a real link between emotional turmoil and eating. For example, in a January 2007 study at Cornell University, researchers found that people who are sad are twice as likely to eat comfort foods as those who are happy. In one part of the study, people who watched a sad film (Love Story) ate 36 percent more popcorn than people who watched a funny film (Sweet Home Alabama). Unfortunately, any short-term emotional boost from eating is likely to be temporary. Emotional eating provides momentary relief, but the underlying turmoil often remains and resurfaces later. In addition, the consequences of emotional eating, such as excessive weight gain, are likely to cause additional emotional problems over the long haul.

Overcoming the Urge to Eat
So how do you resist that cookie when you're feeling a little blue? Taking a second to look at the calorie count on that box of cookies may help curb your appetite for emotional eating. Researchers at Cornell found that sad people who read the nutritional information on comfort food packages are far less likely to overindulge in these foods. In fact, they ate less of the comfort foods than people who were happy. You also may be able to control when you eat emotionally by increasing your awareness of when it occurs. Pay close attention to when you eat, and how you are feeling just prior to eating. If you find yourself reaching for more food soon after a meal, it may be your emotions at work rather than genuine hunger. You can also make small changes in your life to curb the emotions that trigger binge eating. Eating well-balanced meals, getting proper rest and exercising regularly can help foster emotional stability. If you still find yourself tempted to eat during times of high emotion, take steps to restrict the amount of comfort food that you keep in the house. In some cases, people may benefit from psychological therapy for their emotional eating. A therapist can help uncover the patterns of emotional eating and teach techniques for coping with various emotions. For example, people who tend to eat when experiencing stress may be encouraged to take a walk or call a friend during these moments. They may also be encouraged to use a food diary to track when and what they eat, and the emotions they are experiencing at the time.

Reviewed by: Timothy Yarboro, M.D.

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