Emotional Eating

Last Updated October 2020 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Sarah Coles, MD

Emotional eating is eating in response to your emotions or out of boredom. Emotional eaters eat for comfort rather than because they’re hungry. Children, teens, and adults may be emotional eaters.

But how do you know if you’re an emotional eater? How do you know you’re not just truly hungry? Consider the following.

True hunger:

  • Gradually builds.
  • Is a result of an empty stomach.
  • Can be satisfied by a number of different foods.

Emotional eating:

  • Comes on quickly and feels urgent.
  • Is often triggered by a specific event or mood.
  • Results in cravings for a specific food or type of food. For example, emotional eaters may crave chocolate after a hard day.

Additionally, you may be an emotional eater if you find yourself doing these things:

  • Eating in response to emotions or situations, not to satisfy hunger.
  • Feeling an urgent need to eat.
  • Craving a specific food or type of food.
  • Eating a larger amount of food than usual.
  • Eating at unusual times of day (for example, late at night).
  • Gaining excess weight.
  • Feeling embarrassed or guilty about eating.
  • “Sneaking” food during high-stress times.
  • Hiding empty containers of food.

What are the possible causes of emotional eating?

Some common situations and emotions associated with emotional eating include:

  • anger
  • boredom
  • change
  • confusion
  • depression
  • frustration
  • loneliness
  • loss
  • resentment
  • stress

Even positive emotions, such as happiness, can sometimes result in emotional eating.

Path to improved health

It’s important to develop healthy responses when you want to eat because of your emotions. Talk with a friend, family member, family doctor, or counselor about the emotions that trigger your eating. Brainstorm other ways to deal with those emotions. Maybe you can take a walk when you feel stressed out. Perhaps you can call a friend when you’re bored.

Emotional eating can be learned. As a parent or primary caregiver, your actions can show your child how to deal with emotions and eating. Be sure to model healthy eating habits. Also, avoid using food to celebrate occasions or to reward your child for good behavior. Instead, use verbal praise and give other types of rewards. For example, good rewards may be stickers for a young child or a fun activity with an older child.

If you notice signs of emotional eating in your child, talk to him or her about your concerns. Be gentle. Stay positive. Helping your child might be as simple as having a loving conversation.

Things to consider

Emotional eating is unhealthy, both physically and emotionally. Emotional eating can lead to overeating because it isn’t filling a need for nutrients or calories. Your body doesn’t need the food. Over time, taking in extra calories may cause you to gain weight. You could become overweight or obese. Obesity puts you at risk for more health problems, like type 2 diabetes. It also makes you more likely to suffer from depression in adulthood.

Overeating can also cause you to feel guilty or embarrassed. Emotional eating may make you feel better for a short period of time. But it doesn’t solve your problems.

Keep in mind you don’t have to deal with emotional eating on your own. If you believe you—or your child—are an emotional eater, talk with your doctor. He or she will be able to recommend counselors or therapists who can help. Your doctor can also put you in touch with a registered dietitian or other nutrition expert. He or she can help you create a nutrition plan. He or she also can help you talk to your child or teen about eating.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know the difference between regular eating and emotional eating?
  • I feel I’m an emotional eater sometimes, but not regularly. Do I still need to address it?
  • My child is an emotional eater but lies about it. What should I do?
  • My child is an emotional eater but eats only healthy foods. Is that okay?

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Improving Your Eating Habits

National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus: Break the Bonds of Emotional Eating