Emotional Eating and Weight Loss: Definition, Differences and How To Fix It

Emotional eating is not a medical condition or diagnosis but rather a behavior commonly associated with weight gain and difficulty with weight loss. It is the act of consuming large amounts of food, often high in calories and unhealthy, as a response to emotions rather than hunger. This behavior can be triggered by a variety of emotions, such as stress, boredom, sadness, loneliness, or even happiness.

Emotional eating can be a difficult habit to break, as it often becomes a coping mechanism for dealing with strong emotions. That’s why some people eat even when they are not physically hungry. This can lead to overeating and weight gain, which can then contribute to feelings of guilt and shame, creating a vicious cycle.

Obese people are more likely to engage in emotional eating than people who are underweight or of average weight, according to a study published in the National Library of Medicine Journal by Antonios Dakanalis ( The Association of Emotional Eating with Overweight/Obesity, March 2023). This is a significant concern, as emotional eating can lead to weight gain and difficulty with weight loss, making it challenging to maintain a healthy weight.

How Can You Know that You’re an Emotional Eater?

Suppose you find yourself reaching for snacks when you’re stressed, bored, or upset. In that case, you are an emotional eater, according to a Cleveland Clinic post by Dr Susan (What is Emotional Eating? November 2021). Recognizing this behavior is the first step toward addressing it. Some signs of emotional eating include:

  • Eating when you’re not hungry or when you’re already full
  • Craving specific comfort foods, such as ice cream or chips
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed after overeating
  • Using food to cope with emotions instead of dealing with them directly

Let’s find out what triggers this kind of eating.

What Causes and Triggers Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is often triggered by negative emotions, such as stress, sadness, anger, or boredom, according to the Mayo Clinic journal (Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating. Dec 2022). Food is one way to numb or distract yourself from these feelings temporarily. Other factors that may contribute to emotional eating include:

  • Childhood habits: If you were rewarded with food or used it as a coping mechanism, you may continue that pattern into adulthood.
  • Social and cultural influences: Social gatherings, celebrations, and family traditions often involve food, making it a central part of our culture.
  • Hormonal changes: Women may experience increased emotional eating during their menstrual cycle due to changes in hormone levels.
  • Sleep deprivation: Lack of sleep can disrupt hormones that regulate appetite, leading to cravings for comfort foods.

So, is there any difference between emotional eating and binge eating?

What is the Difference Between Emotional Eating and Binge Eating?

emotional eating vs binge eating

Emotional eating and binge eating are often used interchangeably, but they have some key differences. While both involve consuming large amounts of food in response to emotions, emotional eating is typically triggered by negative emotions, while both positive and negative emotions can trigger binge eating.

This is according to the US Pharmacist Journal by Manouchehr Saljoughian, PharmD, PhD ( Emotional Eating and Binge Eating Disorder Feb 2021). Binge eating is also associated with feelings of being out of control and can be classified as a binge eating disorder.

How Can Emotional Eating Affect Weight Loss?

Emotional eating can sabotage weight loss efforts in various ways. According to a Mayo Clinic post by Sandhya Pruthi, M.D. (Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating 2021), consuming high-calorie comfort foods can lead to overeating and an excess intake of calories,. This hinders weight loss progress and can lead to weight gain.

Additionally, emotional eating often involves mindless eating, where you may not pay attention to portion sizes or nutritional value, leading to poor food choices. Therefore, addressing emotional eating and finding healthy coping mechanisms is crucial for successful weight loss.

How Can You Fix Emotional Eating?

Fixing emotional eating involves identifying triggers and finding healthier ways to cope with emotions. A post on Healthline by Carly Werner, RD (Emotional Eating: What You Should Know September 2022), suggests the following strategies:

  • Keep a food diary to identify patterns and triggers for emotional eating
  • Find alternative ways to cope with emotions, such as journaling, exercise, or talking to a friend
  • Practice mindful eating by paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues
  • Seek professional help if you struggle with managing emotions and find yourself turning to food for comfort frequently.

With self-awareness and the right strategies, it is possible to overcome emotional eating and achieve your weight loss goals. Remember to be patient with yourself and seek support when needed. Your mental and physical well-being are both important in your weight loss journey.

How Does the Mood-Food-Weight Loss Cycle Work?

mood food weight loss cycle

The mood-food-weight loss cycle is a complex interplay between emotional states, eating behaviors, and body weight, as described by Mayo Clinic Journal, by Sandhya Pruthi, M.D. (Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating, Dec 2022). Here’s how it typically works:

The Cycle Breakdown

  1. Emotional Triggers: Negative emotions such as stress, sadness, or anxiety can lead to emotional eating. Common triggers include:
    • Relationship Conflicts: Arguments or issues with family, friends, or partners can create emotional distress, leading individuals to seek comfort in food.
    • Work or Other Stressors: High-pressure jobs, deadlines, and workplace conflicts contribute significantly to stress, prompting some to overeat as a coping mechanism.
    • Fatigue: Physical and mental exhaustion can lower willpower and make it harder to resist unhealthy food choices.
    • Financial Pressure: Worrying about bills, debt, or financial instability can cause anxiety and lead to emotional eating.
  2. Eating for Comfort: In response to these triggers, people may turn to food for comfort. High-calorie, sugary, and fatty foods are often chosen because they temporarily boost mood by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin and dopamine.
  3. Temporary Relief and Guilt: While eating provides temporary relief from negative emotions, this effect is short-lived. After eating, especially if it involves overeating or consuming unhealthy foods, feelings of guilt and shame often follow. This can lead to further emotional distress.
  4. Impact on Weight: Repeated episodes of emotional eating contribute to weight gain over time. This is because the comfort foods chosen are typically calorie-dense and consumed in large quantities.
  5. Worsening Mood and Self-Esteem: As weight increases, self-esteem and body image can suffer, leading to a worsening mood. This perpetuates the cycle, as individuals may eat more to cope with these negative feelings.

Breaking the Cycle

To break the mood-food-weight loss cycle, it’s crucial to address both emotional and physical aspects:

  • Identify Triggers: Recognizing and understanding the specific triggers for emotional eating is the first step.
  • Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Finding alternative ways to cope with emotions, such as exercise, talking to a friend, or engaging in a hobby, can help reduce reliance on food for comfort.
  • Mindful Eating: Practicing mindful eating involves being aware of what and why you are eating, which can help you make healthier food choices and recognize true hunger cues.
  • Professional Support: Consulting with healthcare providers, such as a therapist for emotional support or a nutritionist for dietary advice, can provide personalized strategies to manage both emotional and physical health.

By understanding and addressing the interconnected nature of emotions, eating behaviors, and weight, individuals can work towards breaking the cycle and achieving healthier long-term outcomes.

How Can You Incorporate Mindful Eating into Your Daily Routine?

Incorporating mindful eating into your daily routine can help you develop a healthier relationship with food and reduce emotional eating. Here are some tips to get started as recommended by the Harvard  T.H Journal by Dr. Kelly Brownell. (Mindful Eating, September 2020):

  • Start by slowing down and paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues before, during, and after meals.
  • Avoid distractions while eating, such as watching TV or scrolling through social media. Instead, focus on the taste, texture, and satisfaction of your food.
  • Take a few deep breaths before starting to eat. This can help you be more present in the moment and tune into your body’s needs.
  • Choose nutrient-dense foods that nourish your body rather than just provide temporary comfort.
  • Eat mindfully even when indulging in cravings or treats.

With consistent practice and patience, mindful eating can become a regular part of your daily routine, helping you make healthier choices and manage emotional eating.

How Does Emotional Eating Differ From Physical Hunger?

Emotions drive emotional eating, which often involves cravings for specific comfort foods. Physical hunger is the body’s signal that it needs nourishment and can be satisfied with any food.

How can nutritional choices impact emotional eating and weight loss?

Nutritional choices play a crucial role in managing emotional eating and achieving weight loss. Consuming a balanced diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, can help stabilize blood sugar levels, reducing the likelihood of emotional eating triggered by hunger or energy crashes. Avoiding processed foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats can also prevent mood swings and cravings. Incorporating foods that boost serotonin levels, such as salmon, eggs, and nuts, can improve mood and reduce the urge to eat for emotional reasons.

What are Common Triggers for Emotional Eating?

Common triggers include stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness, and certain social situations or environmental cues.

What Strategies Can Help Stop Emotional Eating?

Strategies include identifying triggers, finding alternative coping mechanisms (like exercise or hobbies), practicing mindfulness, and seeking professional help if necessary.

How Can Keeping a Food Diary Help With Emotional Eating?

A food diary can help identify patterns and triggers associated with emotional eating, providing insights into your eating habits and emotions.

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