Emotional eating is a coping mechanism some people use to deal with unwanted feelings. It’s not a formal eating disorder, but healthy strategies are available to help you cope.

Relationship conflicts, pressures at work, and financial stressors are just a few of the influences that can negatively impact your mood. Sometimes food can be the comfort that gets you through a rough day.

Some people regularly rely on food to manage their moods. For them, emotional eating is automatic and habitual.

Even though emotional eating isn’t formally recognized as a distinct eating disorder, it can lead to unwanted physical or mental health effects. But understanding the signs can help you find healthy coping strategies.

Emotional eating is the impulse to eat in response to unpleasant emotions.

Eating might seem like a harmless way to cope with unhappiness or stress. But emotional eating may cause you to eat more food than you need.

It can also prompt you to make less-than-ideal food choices.

You might feel too upset to prepare a healthy meal and opt for convenience foods instead. Or you might choose calorie-laden and nutritionally sparse comfort foods solely for their flavor.

Older research from 2014 indicates that emotional eating can also change the brain’s reward pathways. These changes can reduce your ability to notice when you’re physically hungry, and when you’ve become full.

But the urge to eat because of emotions isn’t the same as physical hunger.

Emotional eatingPhysical hunger
It occurs in response to emotional cues or behavioral patterns.It occurs because of the body’s need for nutrients.
The urge to eat co-occurs with strong emotions.The urge to eat occurs after time has passed since your last meal.
You might crave specific foods, such as those containing fats or sugars.You’re less likely to crave a particular type of food.
Physical sensations may resemble anxiety symptoms, like stomach butterflies.You might feel stomach sensations like growling or grumbling.
Moodiness has a cause you can identify and can occur even if you’ve recently eaten.Moodiness can appear for no apparent reason and occurs after time has passed since you’ve last eaten.
Hunger appears suddenly.Hunger develops gradually.

Common signs of emotional eating include:

  • eating when upset
  • rapid eating
  • guilt or shame about having eaten
  • more frequent consumption of fast-food
  • overeating
  • specific food cravings
  • unintentional weight gain

If you find yourself eating impulsively when you’re upset, you’re not alone. A survey of 5,863 US adults suggests that about 1 in 5 people engage in emotional eating often or very often.

Though there’s a broad range of emotions a person can feel, and the following negative emotions can trigger emotional eating:

While anyone can experience emotional eating, a large study indicates that chances may increase if you’re female or non-Hispanic white.

Research also suggests that less emotional eating occurs as we age.

A 2021 study found that people with an inability to delay gratification are 18% more likely to experience emotional eating tendencies than those who exhibit self-control.

Changes in the brain region known as the lateral hypothalamus (LH) may also increase your chance of emotional eating tendencies. A 2019 study found a link between alterations in the LH and both emotional eating patterns and higher stress response levels.

What you eat while upset also matters, since some types of food may reinforce your emotional eating response.

Research indicates that certain foods may be addictive. Particularly problematic are items containing highly refined sugars and fats.

The energy density in these foods can change the reward pathways in the brain, causing you to want them more often.

Even though emotional eating isn’t an official eating disorder, you can still get support.

You can begin by contacting your family doctor, who may have referral information for:

  • a registered dietician
  • a mental health professional
  • a support group

There are also steps you can take on your own to manage emotional eating behavior.

Finding alternative coping strategies may be one way to curb emotional eating tendencies, according to a 2018 study.

The study also found that exercise may lessen the impact of negative emotions and depression which can lead to emotional eating.

Practicing stress reduction may also help.

Not only does stress cause unwanted negative emotions, but it can also interfere with your awareness of your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Noticing these signals can help to prevent you from overeating.

Emotional eating can be automatic, so adopting a mindful eating approach may also help.

Mindful eating strategies include:

  • paying attention to whether you’re hungry and when you become full
  • eating slowly
  • taking small bites and savoring each one
  • keeping a food log and thinking about what you’re eating

If curbing the urge for emotional eating is too difficult, you may be able to lessen its adverse effects.

Removing sugary and fat-laden foods from your home reduces your access to addictive food items. Keeping washed and cut vegetables in the fridge ready for snacking turns emotional eating into an opportunity to consume extra nutrition.

Emotional eating is a coping strategy to deal with unpleasant emotions. It’s not the same thing as physical hunger.

People who experience emotional eating may consume more calories than they need and eat convenient comfort foods that aren’t as nutritious.

There are several ways you may be able to manage emotional eating. Exercise, mindful eating, and reducing stress are some examples.