Emotional eating: causes for stress eating or overeating and why you should care


Last Updated on January 6, 2019

Is emotional eating an issue for you too?
Over 50% of my readers seem to struggle with emotional eating habits and stress. This is the result of a recent survey on leanjumpstart.com, maybe you remember?

I stopped publishing clean eating recipes for awhile and started to dig deeper into the field of emotional eating, binge eating and food addiction.

Emotional Eating: Causes for Stress eating and why you should care

With this article, I’ll start a series of blog posts with invaluable insights based on scientific evidence that help you better understand what’s going on when emotional hunger occurs and how to deal with it.

How emotional eating starts

You probably love real food and try to omit processed food as much as you can. Chances are high that you also prefer cooking clean eating recipes for weight loss or weight management. And yet, with all your best intentions, you still experience a tendency to emotional eating, mindless eating, overeating or binge eating when you are nervous or stressed.

Some scientists researched “Why some people eat more than others, and why they relapse after a weight loss diet.” The answer: More than 50% of all “problem eaters” or obese people are emotional eaters, which in reality are hiding something else behind their hunger. (1) This number corresponds with my own survey mentioned above.

For the US-Institution “Psychology of Eating” emotional eating is an issue for 3 out of 4 people and if a group of us were looking at the same type of food, no two people would metabolize or see it the same way. (2)

But, what are the so-called “emotional eaters” hiding behind their hunger? You can imagine that the answer is individually very different and complex.
See, most of us enjoy food. We eat when we are hungry and we are satisfied when our meal tastes delicious and pleasantly filling.

For some individuals, however, certain type of foods generates extremely positive and calming feelings. As long as they live a balanced, joyful life, their eating behavior is mostly also in balance.

Things change if they leave their comfort zone and experience a specific trigger that is stressing them out. Similar to short-circuit it puts them immediately at a risk for compulsive eating, overeating, comfort eating or eating on autopilot.

Triggers for emotional eating

To overcome emotional eating, it is absolutely important to be aware of any special situation when you feel a strong craving for something to eat. Emotional eating has different triggers. Which are your triggers?

  • You eat when you are stressed, upset or nervous.
  • You eat when you are anxious, worried or overwhelmed.
  • You eat when you see others eating.
  • You eat when you are forced to do things you don’t like.
  • You can’t watch a movie without eating.
  • You eat when you want to reward yourself.
  • You eat when you experience something great.
  • You always eat if somebody is offering you something.
  • You eat when you are bored.
  • You eat when you are sad.
  • You eat when you are feeling lonely.
  • You eat always at the same time, if you are hungry or not.

Once you’ve found out what triggers your eating (most often certain feelings) you should ask yourself, why you need food in these situations. Maybe you think that it is totally normal to eat something while watching a movie or when something is offered to you etc. But these are just old habits you rarely question and think they are ok.

Where does emotional eating come from?

It is seldom physical hunger that is making us fat, but a multitude of emotional reasons like frustration, anger or sadness explains the Indian internist and endocrinologist Deepak Chopra. In his bestseller book “What are you hungry for” he is dealing with the phenomena of overeating.

His theses: “The mind is the key to losing weight, and when the mind is satisfied, the body quits craving too much food”. (3)

Emotional eaters appease their strong feelings with eating. They don’t allow their true feelings to come to surface, but fill them with calories, before they can reflect, how to actually deal with these perceptions.

Some people want to control an intolerable sense of anxiety. Others need food to manage unruly emotions, boredom, loneliness, or unresolved personal agendas.

Often it is not the lack in discipline leading to bad eating habits, but pushed down feelings from their past or youth.

If you have deeper issues with food or overeating, I highly recommend seeing a counselor or therapist to help you resolve core emotional issues.

Emotional hunger vs. physical hunger: how to tell the difference

Physical hunger develops slowly over time with typical physical signals like a rumbling stomach or low energy, etc. Eating a large range of foods will quickly satisfy an empty stomach and fuel your body with energy.

With emotional hunger however, a short-circuit occurs and you feel so hungry that you are compelled to eat often a specific type of food or taste like fatty sugary or fatty salty foods.

For emotional eaters, it’s not the lack in nutrients, but inner burdens let them run to the fridge to grab for their “tranquilizer” to numb or avoid emotions. Not to eat causes them emotional stress in the first place – not physical withdrawal.

Sometimes this kind of behavior leads them directly into an eating disorder like e.g. binge eating.

Emotional eating vs. binge eating vs. food addiction

emotional eating vs binge eating

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is like Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa a classified and diagnosed mental illness.(4) It needs professional support and treatment from health professionals specializing in the treatment of binge eating disorders, including nutritionists, psychiatrists, and therapists.

It’s important to know that each binge eater is also an emotional eater. But, not every emotional eater has a binge eating disorder – although emotional and stress eating can often mean the first step towards a binge eating disorder. To make things even more complicated, binge eating disorder and food addiction can appear very similar.

Some studies support the theory that many severe obese and those with advanced eating disorders are also chemically dependent on food, as a substance disorder. In fact food or sugar addiction could be the primary medical problem in these cases and not emotional eating. (5) (6)

So, a crucial step for possible emotional eaters is to find out their eating type before starting to cure it. I’ve put together a smart quiz that can help you find out your eating type. Click below to enter the quiz!
By the way the test results will give you a detailed report and include also a smart action plan for your eating type.

Emotional Eating Quiz
An emotional eater with psychological compulsions needs other strategies to overcome emotional eating than someone with a food addiction and physical cravings for highly palatable food. Also, with so many different triggers for emotional eating, there exist different sub-types of emotional eaters who demand different strategies to control their compulsive eating. There are even emotional eaters triggered by sleep deprivation.

Why emotional eating is a problem

Here is the trap for all emotional eaters. It is now recognized that highly palatable food can really calm you down, something you might have experienced by yourself. It activates the reward circuits of the brain by the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

Indeed, after a period of food deprivation any wholesome food will activate the reward pathway. The important distinction, however, is that delicious foods activate the neurochemical signals more reliably and more potently than less tasty substances.(7)

Tests show, that even crying babies react quicker to sweets than to the pacifier. It is also no coincidence that students prefer sweets as stress-relieving foods in exam stress situations.

This has pure physical reasons. The main actor in our stress system is the messenger cortisol that is dispensed each time when we are stressed and have to attain a high performance.

Fat and sugar decrease the stress hormone cortisol in your blood quickly – even if it is only temporary. On top of that sugar supplies an energy boost making you more alert.

In this context the German scientist and author of the bestselling book “the selfish brain” Professor Achim Peters made fascinating discoveries. He could prove in a study how the stressed brain demands for extra energy.

Our brain regulates our stress system to protect us from a steady cortisol flood. Over time, we become more relaxed. This positive effect, however, comes with a higher demand for sugar. The consequence: Each time when we are stressed our brain demands food – in fact the sweeter the better. We become an emotional eater.

But that is not all. Over time these emotional eaters can develop a real food addiction with physical cravings for highly palatable foods such as sugar or white floor. They are at a risk of overeating to curb hunger caused by a combination of emotional factors (e.g. stress) and chemical factors (possible food addiction).

Food industry makes it hard to change eating habits

As long as emotional eaters don’t identify their triggers for their eating cravings, like e.g. a stressful job, heart-ache or sense of inferiority, they follow an archaic instinct, when they grab for fattening foods.

On top of that, it’s hard in our society to change eating habits, because first-aid calorie bombs like fast food, cakes or chocolate bars are available always and everywhere.

Here is a recent example we experienced on our own. Students promoted free chocolate bars in front of the open-air cinema we visited. They just pressed two chocolate bars in the hands of each visitor passing by. At the first glance you might think, wow, how generous. Two bars would cost over $2 and they just gift it to each visitor? Now think about it – how likely is it that such a chocolate bar will survive a two hours movie in your hands? Isn’t this a sneaky strategy from the food industry to keep you in a possible sugar addiction?

Another example: While we walked the streets of New York last year a young promotion team offered us small bags with potato chips bags for free. My family is not too fond of potato chips but for me as a former “potato chips junkie” it was really hard to resist.

I’m sure you also know some examples for free fattening foods giving you a hard time sticking to healthy habits.

External stress factors can’t be switched off immediately

The second problem: External stress factors that lead to overeating can’t be switched off at the push of a button. Science estimates that our weight is determined to 80% by stress in our life.

According to US nutrition psychologist Marc David “Even trivial stress situations can have a strong impact on our metabolism.”

Stress pushes us to highest productivity and brings out the best in us. But stress has also another effect on our body. It changes massively our metabolism as explained above.

Stress, by definition, is nothing else than each actual or imaginary threat. It mustn’t be a wild animal that is threating us. Problems in relationships or the sorrow to come too late to a meeting we as much interpret as threat, as the fear that we are not pretty enough to please the other. In other words, we are more or less always stressed.

Stress and weight loss: Why a strict diet can’t be the solution

Many emotional eaters try to combat their weight with a strict diet that can act only as counterproductive. A strict diet means nothing else than stress for your body, your brain automatically reacts with a sugar craving as explained above. This is by the way another reason why I’m a huge advocate for a relaxed 80/20 clean eating approach.

That fact alone gives you permission and flexibility to indulge wisely from time to time, minimizes the stress that often occurs with dogmatic eating regimes based on rigid rules.

If, however, weight loss diets cause exactly the opposite of what you aspire, how then can you lose weight in spite of emotional eating?

To avoid weight gain it is important to get down to the root of the trouble. Those who succeed will automatically get (back to) their genetically predestinated weight.