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5 Ways Emotional Eating is Harmful to Your Health

Emotional Eating

Do you reach for a snack when you feel stressed out, confused, or anxious? According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of adults ate unhealthy foods or ate too much in the past 30 days. Most did it because they felt stressed out. Emotional eaters reach for food when they feel sad, lonely, angry, worried or lack clarify.

Emotional eating becomes a coping mechanism for dealing with the difficulties of life. An emotional eater gets a temporary lift when they eat comfort food or food that brings them joy. But the comfort food offers is short-lived and it doesn’t solve the underlying problem either.

There are distinct types and motivations for emotional eating. Some people eat to fill an emotional gap. Other people overeat out of boredom, sadness, or fear of loneliness. You might discover you’re exhausted after an exhausting day at work and snack on a plate of brownies or mindlessly eat other junk food. These snacks, however, are not really what you crave.

Some reasons people engage in emotional eating is to avoid dealing with:

  • Relationship issues
  • Family issues
  • Work-related problems
  • Emotional trauma
  • Money issues
  • Long-standing insecurities

Emotional eating can be an occasional coping mechanism or take on a life of its own and become a habit that’s hard to break. Why is emotional eating problematic? Let’s look at ways that emotional eating can harm your physical and mental health.

Emotional Eating Can Lead to Obesity-Related Health Problems

Emotional eating is linked with obesity because of the food choices people make when they eat in an emotionally charged state. Ice cream, chocolate, chips, and other ultra-processed foods are the most common. And when you’re eating emotionally, you’re less aware of satiety signals, so you eat more. Gaining weight increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. The risks are even greater in people who lead an inactive lifestyle. Emotional eating can also trigger or worsen depressive symptoms and lead to a vicious cycle of overeating, guilt, and worsening mental health.

It Keeps You from Addressing the Underlying Emotional Issue

Emotional eaters often eat to cope with feelings they don’t want to face or don’t know how to deal with. Eating is a way to relieve emotional pain or discomfort without having to confront it. But how well does this work as a strategy for solving problems? The truth is it doesn’t. The emotions and feelings are still there after the package of cookies or chips is gone and the sweet taste has left your tongue. A better approach is to identify the underlying issues that lead to emotional eating, and work through them in a safe environment. Emotional eating is a temporary distraction that can lead to other problems.

Emotional Eating Leads to Guilt and Frustration

Food isn’t a long-term solution to problems. Far from being a solution, emotional eating can create additional mental health issues. Eating something tasty may briefly boost an emotional eater’s mood but feelings of guilt are close behind and frustration at not having more control.

Emotional eaters may beat themselves up for eating an entire pint of ice cream, but this creates more negative feelings and feelings of worthlessness. Emotional eaters often feel worse after they’ve eaten than before. As the guilt and self-flagellation increase, the guilt itself becomes the trigger for more overeating. It’s easy to see how things can spiral out of control.

It Doesn’t Teach Healthy Eating Habits

Reaching for comfort foods reinforces unhealthy eating habits and creates a behavioral pattern of eating the wrong foods. Plus, the types of food people eat in response to deep-seated emotions are often high in calories and low in nutrition. Emotional eaters may experience nutritional gaps even when they overeat. These foods don’t supply the essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that all bodies need to function their best and stay well.

Emotional Eating Can Lead to a Negative Body Image

Some emotional eaters gain weight, sometimes significant amounts. The foods that people eat when dealing with negative emotions are often high in sugar, fat, and calories, so it’s not surprising that weight gain follows. The weight gain further reinforces an already negative body image. Self-criticism fuels the ongoing cycle of overeating, weight gain, and negative body image. Just as people with eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder, have negative body images, emotional eaters often do too.

The Bottom Line

With emotional eating, it’s important to identify the emotional triggers that lead to overeating. Once you know what your triggers are, you can address the underlying problem and find an alternative way to reduce stress and resolve emotional conflict.

One way to identify triggers is to keep a diary of what you eat and the circumstances surrounding what you ate. Were you feeling down? Did something happen, or were you thinking about something specific when the urge to eat something unhealthy hit? By documenting this, you can search for patterns and better understand your triggers.

Some emotional eaters benefit from therapy sessions to learn more effective ways to manage stress and deal with those emotional triggers that lead to overeating. It takes time and patience to conquer emotional eating, but it can be done. There’s help to guide and support you. Look for a therapist who is knowledgeable about and deals with people with eating disorders or emotional eating issues. They can help with stress management and help you deal with emotional eating triggers in a healthier, more productive manner.

References:

  • “Emotional eating statistics Archives – Blissfully Healthy.” 12 Apr. 2019, /blissfullyhealthy.com/tag/emotional-eating-statistics/.
  • van Strien T. Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Curr Diab Rep. 2018 Apr 25;18(6):35. doi: 10.1007/s11892-018-1000-x. PMID: 29696418; PMCID: PMC5918520.
  • “Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating – Mayo Clinic.” 09 Dec. 2020, mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342.
  • van Strien T. Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Curr Diab Rep. 2018 Apr 25;18(6):35. doi: 10.1007/s11892-018-1000-x. PMID: 29696418; PMCID: PMC5918520.
  • Shriver, Lenka H., Jessica M. Dollar, Susan D. Calkins, Susan P. Keane, Lilly Shanahan, and Laurie Wideman. 2021. “Emotional Eating in Adolescence: Effects of Emotion Regulation, Weight Status and Negative Body Image” Nutrients 13, no. 1: 79. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13010079.
  • The Surprising Ways That Pain Can Impact Your Daily Life, https://artofhealthyliving.com/the-surprising-ways-that-pain-can-impact-your-daily-life/.

Related Articles By Cathe:

What Causes Emotional Eating and How to Stop It

5 Ways to Curb Mindless Overeating

The Surprising Reason You’re Not Losing Weight

5 Ways to Naturally Curb Your Appetite That Are Backed by Science

5 Things to Do When Your Eating Habits Get Off Track

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