Emotional Eating – Why Do We Do It?

Written by: Matej Tušak, Ph.D.

For people, food has symbolic meaning. It seems like food helps us bring sense to life and sometimes we believe that if we control what we eat, we control our lives. It feels like with food we can literally fill our bodies and fill in the emotional gap that comes with lack or discontent of our feelings.

To put it more concretely – we don't only eat to feel full, but also to relax. Sometimes we eat to enjoy the taste or maybe because common meal with a potential partner can help us get to know each other better, and sometimes just to get rid of excessive stress.

Are Additional Meanings of Eating Really Meaningless?

All these additional meanings or reasons for eating are usually harmless and sometimes even have important social function. But unfortunately, too many times food becomes an award. For example, we eat to award ourselves or even compensate the feelings we are not capable to experience or fulfill in everyday life as we would like to.

This kind of eating wouldn't solve our problems, actually it adds to them. Instead of learning how to express feelings, get in touch with people, create an intimate relationship or simply connect with someone, we compensate all that with overeating. By doing so, we upgrade our existing emotional problems with adding problems with self-confidence because of overeating or developing bulimia or phases of anorexia to compensate overeating problems. The consequences are self-esteem problems coming from eating disorders. The first step to save ourselves from emotional eating is recognizing the so called emotionally compulsive initiators that cause this type of behavior. Usual emotionally compulsive irritators are stressful events, long-lasting moderate negative emotions, or turbulent distressors that can irritate our thoughts and feelings to make us eat something instead of handling these emotions more constructively.

Emotional Eating Is Similar to Addiction

Why do we fall to addiction such as emotional eating? Simply, because it is easier. Eat everything we can to feel better is actually the same as getting drunk or taking a drug.  Because after that the world looks more beautiful to us and we feel happier. But when we "sober up", it becomes even worse. In the phase of abstinence crisis also come feelings of guilt that along with already existing negative feelings make the situation even worse and can cause development of depressive mood.

To conclude – we use food to feel better (when we actually don't) and not to fill our stomach. For example, after a huge argument with our partner, we urgently need a lot of ice cream (from gallon-sized bowl if possible) to calm down. If such things happen occasionally, it doesn't mean that we are addicted. But if a bowl of ice cream becomes the first thought when we are disappointed, under stress or exhausted, then we got caught in a loop that it won't be easy to get out of. Classical diets can't help regulate our compulsive emotional eating. In such cases it's better to find some professional advice and take an emotionally wider approach.