Emotional Eating, Shame, and The Cycle of Disordered Eating

Stress Eating and Eating Disorders

Find yourself deep in the fridge when you’re stressed, for reasons other than hunger? You’re not alone. Emotional eating affects many people, and it can be a tough cycle to break. Here, we’ll take a look at why emotional eating happens, the shame that many people feel after binge eating, and why emotional eating patterns tend to be cyclical. 

What Is Emotional Eating?

Many people turn to food as a comfort in times of stress, sadness, loneliness, and boredom. Emotional eating isn’t related to physical hunger, rather, it uses food to fill an emotional need. 

Emotional eating typically relies on feel-good foods and beverages—like sugar, other simple carbs, and alcohol—to give the brain a boost of feel-good chemicals. Often, people who are using emotional eating to deal with a negative emotion feel like they’re on autopilot while the eating is happening. They feel like they have no choice other than to eat, even though they logically know they aren’t hungry. 

Eating for reasons other than hunger isn’t always a bad thing. Enjoying a slice of birthday cake, sipping a sugary coffee with a friend, or nibbling a treat baked with love by a family member are all normal, healthy parts of life. When emotional eating becomes a coping mechanism for stress, however, it’s a sign that new coping skills need to be developed.

Emotional Eating Vs. Real Hunger

People who are stuck in a pattern of emotional eating may find it hard to differentiate between emotional hunger and real hunger. 

Some ways to tell the difference between the two include: 

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, while physical hunger comes on gradually. 
  • Emotional hunger is only satisfied by specific foods, while physical hunger can be satisfied by many foods. 
  • Emotional hunger doesn’t stop when the body is physically full, while physical hunger delivers clear signs that you’ve eaten enough. 
Emotional Eating Vs. Real Hunger

Why Does Emotional Eating Happen?

The exact reasons for emotional eating differ from person to person. Many people find that they fall victim to the emotional eating cycle when they’re sad, lonely, stressed, or otherwise looking for comfort or distraction from a tough situation. 

Eating carb-heavy foods and cheese can create a boost in serotonin, the brain’s happy chemical. Other chemical messengers in the brain are affected by emotional eating as well, creating a quick path to a sense of well-being. Over time, it’s easy to associate binging on simple carbs with a brain chemistry pick-me-up. Of course, binge eating doesn’t address the actual cause of stress, and it’s a short-term fix to a bigger problem. 

Emotional Eating and Shame

It’s common for people who deal with emotional eating to feel shame and hide their behavior. People who emotionally eat may worry about judgment or negative responses from others, especially if thinness and self-control around food are highly valued by family and friends. 

Societal pressures around weight and body image may also lead to shame in people who emotionally eat. People who deal with emotional eating may feel shame around food addiction. The solution can feel so simple: just stop binging. For people who are living with emotional eating issues, however, it can be nearly impossible to stop the cycle without help.

The Emotional Eating Cycle

Typically, emotionally eating follows a cycle: 

First, a negative emotion occurs. This may be related to a specific event or may be the result of a mental health issue, like anxiety or depression. 

Secondly, binge eating occurs. This provides a temporary serotonin and dopamine boost, quelling the negative emotion for a short time and creating a sense of calm and well-being. Thoughts of future restriction and bargaining may set in during the binge. In the midst of a binge, the person binging might think It’s ok, I just won’t eat anything tomorrow; or No big deal, I’ll hit the gym hard in the morning.

Next, shame and a lowered self-image set in. As mentioned, people who eat emotionally may feel shame over their eating habits, and get down on themselves for not being “strong” enough to break the emotional eating cycle. 

Many people who emotionally eat try to “make up” for the binge by restricting food intake, exercising excessively, or purging (vomiting). These approaches aren’t conducive to developing a healthy relationship with food, and usually lead to the continuation of the emotional eating cycle. 

Finally, a negative emotion occurs again, and the cycle restarts. Exhaustion, stress, and mood changes caused by restrictions near the end of the cycle leave people dealing with emotional eating more susceptible to beginning the cycle again. 

The Emotional Eating Cycle

Breaking The Pattern

If you’re struggling with emotional eating, you’re not alone. It’s possible to develop a better relationship with food. Be patient with yourself—emotional eating patterns are often developed in childhood and can take time and effort to break. 

Identify your triggers. Knowing what makes you tick can be a big step to help you overcome emotional eating. When you notice a trigger and feel the urge to emotionally eat, pause for a moment and take the time to feel the feeling. While this may not stop you from emotionally eating at the start of your journey toward a healthier relationship with food, noticing triggers is an important step toward breaking the cycle.

Have a plan in place. Once you’re able to recognize your triggers, develop a plan to help you through moments when you feel the urge to emotionally eat. Calling a friend, changing your environment (going outside if you’re inside, for example), or simply taking a five-minute break before you choose something to eat can all provide the space necessary to help you change your mindset and cope with the negative emotion that’s pulling you into the emotional eating cycle. 

Get professional help. We know—it can feel silly to reach out for help with something that feels as simple as emotional eating. The brain is complex, and it’s not your fault that you’re struggling to break long-standing coping patterns. A professional therapist can work with you to help you develop a plan that sets you up for long-term success.