Has it happened to you that you eat for impulse instead of feeling hungry physically? In this article, you’ll learn what is emotional eating, why guilt is usually the main ingredient of it, and how does it affect your well-being integrally. Besides, you’ll learn how to handle your emotional eating.

Dr. Elisa Markhoff is one of the pioneers of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. She is a Nutritional and Lifestyle Coach specializing in Eating Psychology. She has studied at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and at The Life Coach School. I will refer to a lot of her research on this article.

Dr. Markhoff states that emotional eating is a complex process as it involves several areas of psychology. Besides, it can envelope several layers of emotions and behaviours based on the life experiences of the person, such as fear, bad events as a child, the perception of her body, etc. that influence her emotions.

What’s Emotional Eating?

Emotional Eating is when we eat to regulate our emotions. It could be either ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ emotions. On the other side it’s physical hunger, when we eat because our body, the stomach requires food.

Physical hunger is a gradual hunger, it means the body starts getting hungry little by little and we’ll feel it in the stomach. We can take the time to think about what we’re going to eat, take the time to cook and eat it (hopefully) in a calm and peaceful environment.

Emotional eating, on the contrary, it’s when you get hungry all of a sudden, intensely and you start craving for a particular type of food, most of the time junk food, you feel desperate or stressed and you kind of devour it in a few minutes. By the time you get out of the trance, the guilt has already wrapped you up.

I just want to specify that emotional eating is not the same as bingeing since the latter is an eating disorder and it has to do with the number of times it repeats and the intensity in which takes place during a certain period of time. Besides, there is a total disconnection with the emotions.

Emotional Eating Illustrations

It’s important to mention, that many times we eat, we do it emotionally in a certain percentage. For example, a newborn baby eats because she needs to nurture herself, and also because she needs a connection with her mom.

It also exists positive emotional eating, it’s when for example, you decide to go out with friends to a tea place or for lunch in order to socialize, catch up and have a good time, instead of the actual fact of being fed. 

It is more common to have negative emotional eating. Has it happened to you that you feel like eating ice cream at night because you had a rough day at school or work? You felt stressed and frustrated, therefore you believe you deserve it because you need some comfort and feel pampered.

What about going to a fancy restaurant to celebrate the success of your project? You get to eat and drink as much as you’d like because of all the effort you made, right?

According to the emotions you feel, sadness, joy, boredom, frustration, happiness, stress, anxiety, anger, etc. you might binge, overeat or not eat at all, which is the other extreme and that also brings damaging consequences to your health.

Guilt: The Main Ingredient of Emotional Eating

After overcoming the trance of emotional eating, comes guilt! An emotion that unfortunately does not serve us at all, on the contrary. Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for the commission or consequences of some act of wrongdoing (WordReference description).

Did you know that it doesn’t matter if we eat healthy or unhealthy food, our body will metabolize the food according to our thoughts and emotions?

The hypothalamus, an important and small structure of the brain (the size of an almond) is part of the limbic system which helps harmonize our mind (thoughts and emotions), with our physiological functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleep, and fatigue. And certain body functions like metabolic processes, the release of several hormones, etc.

Eva Reynolds from the University of Rochester states that when we enjoy our food while eating it, our hypothalamus releases pleasure signals that stimulate our digestive organs, activating them to thoroughly break down and burn the calories of the food.

However, if we feel bad about what we are eating, the hypothalamus will transmit negative signals. This negativity effectively discourages metabolic activity, slowing digestion and causing our body to store more calories as fat rather than burning them as energy.

Besides the guilt, other emotional stressors such as fear, uncertainty, grief, and beliefs can affect your health. According to Marc David, Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, what you think and feel about a food can be as important and determinant of its nutritional value and its effect on body weight as the actual nutrients themselves.

Also, is relevant to mention that when we are stressed the digestive system shuts down, it disconnects our body and mind, and wants to eat more.

How to Handle it

The ideal will be to detect when we’re having an emotional eating trance which might help to avoid guilt. Unfortunately, this might not happen and it’s necessary to start backward.

It’s not easy to stay present and conscious all the time, and eating time is not an exception. Therefore, in the beginning, you might realize that you have not eaten by physical hunger afterward.

Dr. Markhoff recommends to follow these steps as soon as you perceive the guilt feeling:

  1. Forgive yourself. You will get conscious of the process eventually.
  2. Become a detective of your emotions and your relationship with food. Have a journal to write every day the following:
    • What are you eating? (fast food, healthy food)
    • Why are you eating? (physical hunger, due to stress, sadness)
    • Where are you eating? (in front of your computer, at a dining table)
    • How are you eating? (being present, watching a screen)
    • How do you feel? (stressed/relaxed)
  3. The key is to accept (not to control) in order to let it flow. Meditation is fundamental, or any other tool that helps you connect with your body in a positive and warm way.
  4. Make an activity to get out of the emotion. Be flexible with your emotions. Instead of going directly for food, drink water, take fresh air, move. 
  5. Eventually, you will be able to control your emotions to avoid binges.
  6. Be aware that it’s a process. You need to commit daily to your emotions and habits.

Guilt can either guide you to ask for help or isolate you. If after trying these steps you are not able to overcome negative emotional eating, please search for help.

The Institute for the Psychology of Eating offers for free a 4 part e-book series all about breaking free from unwanted eating and health challenges. Also, they have coaches that might assist you.

In conclusion, emotional eating is when we eat to regulate our emotions, and depending on if these are positives or negatives at the time of eating, are the behaviors our body will carry out to accomplish its physiological functions and the impact that will have in our bodies.

It’s fundamental to be present and conscious to catch the feeling of guilt since is the main ingredient of negative emotional eating. Learn to handle the symptoms to liberate yourself.

What is the more common emotion that causes you emotional eating? Reflect on it and let me know in the comments below.

And please share this article if you think it is of good use to your loved ones.