5 Stages of Emotional Eating and Why They Happen

Emotional eating

Emotional eating occurs when a person eats in response to unpleasant emotions, like anger, stress, or sadness. The trend is becoming more prevalent as the pressures of everyday life mount. A recent report published by the American Psychological Association showed 38% of adults admit to overeating or consuming unhealthy foods in the past 30 days due to stress. Almost half report engaging in emotional eating weekly.

Emotional eating is no small problem. This type of eating can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related health problems. Emotional eating is a response to stress and a mechanism to reduce the effects of stress, but it can lead to mental health issues due to the psychological effects of being caught in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break out of. How does emotional eating start, and why is it so hard to conquer? Let’s look at the stages of the emotional eating cycle and what causes emotional overeating.

Stage One: Emotional Eating Starts with Stress

Stress, conscious or unconscious, is the trigger for emotional eating. Stress also triggers emotional eating when it’s not even associated with food. For example, the frustration of being stuck in traffic could cause you to run into a convenience store and grab whatever looks enticing at the time, rather than prepare something healthy at home. The stress of being in an unpleasant situation creates emotional distress that increases the desire to eat something tasty and convenient.

When your body is under stress, your adrenal glands, two glands above your kidneys, release cortisol, a stress hormone that increases appetite and cravings for foods high in sugar and fat. The trigger for emotional eating is emotional, but there’s also a physiological component. Your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and your cortisol level rises. Cortisol increases the desire to eat sugary, high-fat, and salty foods.

Stage Two: Stress Leads to an Urge to Eat

As mentioned, your adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress, thereby increasing the desire to eat, but it starts with an emotional trigger. Emotional eating is a way to seek comfort from a situation that makes you feel frustrated, melancholy, or uncomfortable, or a situation you have little control over. Stress is the trigger for emotional eating and the desire to eat when you’re under stress may have roots during childhood.

You may have learned as a child that eating something sweet and indulgent made you feel better when you were down. For example, some parents give children something sweet to eat, like a cookie or piece of candy, as a reward for good behavior. This reinforces the idea that eating sugary foods or comfort food leads to a positive outcome and that association stays with you throughout life and plays out unconsciously even when you’re an adult. Beyond your awareness, your brain may tell you, based on past patterns, that something that tastes good eases stress. Over time, eating to relieve stress becomes a habit and the good feelings you get continue to reinforce and ingrain that habit.

Stage Three: You Overeat

Once you get that urge to overeat, triggered by stress, it’s easy to reach for a cookie, brownie, or slice of pizza, or whatever is in the fridge or cabinet. Most of the foods people eat when stressed aren’t healthy or filling. These foods also don’t turn off your appetite, like whole, fiber-rich foods. Therefore, it’s easy to keep eating them until you’ve finished the whole batch of brownies or the entire bag of potato chips.

Stage Four: You Feel Guilty

After overeating comes the guilt. According to the American Psychological Association, almost half of people who eat too much or eat unhealthy foods feel guilty or disappointed with their actions and are remorseful. Yet guilt is a non-productive emotion. It’s also an effective coping mechanism for the emotions you’re dealing with since it doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, the associated guilt may worsen it.

The key is to replace emotional eating with a healthy and more productive way to manage stress in the short term. It could be taking a stroll outdoors, playing with a pet, taking a relaxing bath, meditating, exercising, or talking to someone. Longer-term its important to find a way to deal with problems that trigger emotional eating. Unfortunately, unresolved guilt leads to stage five in the emotional eating cycle.

Stage Five: Guilt Leads to a Sense of Powerlessness

If you repeat the pattern of eating when you’re stressed and feel out of control, it only worsens the problem. The sense of powerlessness you get from emotional eating damages your self-esteem and worsens the problem and makes it harder to take positive steps to change the behavior. It leads to a feeling of helplessness and inability to take action that would help you find solutions to problems and issues that cause stress.

The Bottom Line

Controlling emotional eating doesn’t happen overnight, but many people recover and adopt a more healthful approach to stress management. It begins with identifying the triggers, by being aware, and keeping a journal. Then, finding more effective ways to manage cravings and stress. Some people can do that on their own, while others may need the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist to change a deeply ingrained emotional eating habit. With time, it’s something that can be changed. It’s also important to adopt a healthy lifestyle, as it makes severing ties with emotional eating easier.


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