Emotional eating is eating in response to your emotions or out of boredom. Emotional eaters eat for comfort rather than because they are hungry. Children, teens, and adults may be emotional eaters.
How is emotional eating different from eating because of physical hunger?
Hunger associated with emotional eating comes on quickly and feels urgent. It’s often triggered by a specific event or mood. It is different from physical hunger. True hunger gradually builds and is a result of an empty stomach. Physical hunger can be satisfied by a number of different foods. Cravings associated with emotional eating usually involve a specific food or type of food. Emotional eaters may crave chocolate after a hard day or reach for ice cream after a fight with a friend.
What are the possible causes of emotional eating?
Some common situations and emotions associated with emotional eating include:
Even positive emotions, such as happiness, sometimes can result in emotional eating.
Path to improved health
It is important to develop healthy responses to your problems. Talk with a friend, family member, family doctor, or counselor about the emotions that trigger your emotional eating. Brainstorm other ways to deal with those emotions. Take a walk when you feel stressed out. Call a friend when you are bored.
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 warm and loving conversation.
Emotional eating can be learned. Your influence as a parent or primary caregiver is one key to prevention. Be sure to model healthy eating habits for your child. 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.
Signs of emotional eating
- 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.
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.
When to see a doctor
You don’t have to deal with emotional eating on your own. If you believe you, or your child or teen, are an emotional eater, see 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. They can help you create a nutrition plan. They can also help you talk to your child or teen about eating.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I know the difference between regular and emotional eating?
- I feel that I am 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?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.