Emotional Eating: When Diets Don't Work

  • Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food in response to feelings instead of hunger.
  • Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.

And believe it or not, 100% of experts believe that obesity is caused by overeating.

And with researchers forecasting that by 2030, 86.3% of American adults will be overweight or obese, maybe, just maybe we should take a closer look at Emotional Eating and it’s cousin Binge Eating.

A Closer Look

Over the centuries, human beings have evolved to thrive on certain types of food. Sure, we can survive on lesser quality food, but our health will suffer for it.

The Good Stuff:

Vegetables, Fruit, unprocessed Animal Protein, and smaller quantities of Seeds, Nuts, Grains and Dairy.

Keep in mind that there is a wide variety of human dietary practices based upon geography and food availability. But this list encompasses pretty much all of the good stuff.

The Bad Stuff:

Processed foods – The more processed they are, the worse they are for our health. e.g. Trans Fats, High Fructose Corn Syrup and just about any kid’s meal at a fast-food restaurant.

So, how come “when you’re happy, your food of choice could be steak or pizza, when you’re sad it could be ice cream or cookies and when you’re bored it could be potato chips.

Food does more than fill our stomachs. It also satisfies feelings, and when you quench those feelings with comfort food when your stomach isn’t growling, that’s emotional eating.

And emotional eating seldom involves the good stuff. Our bad moods drive use towards the processed foods that satisfy our taste buds, defective insulin receptors and most importantly our serotonin receptors.

Ahhh serotonin. Wonderful stuff. Powerful stuff.

So what’s the big deal?

What’s wrong with treating myself after a hard day?

Well, this tendency to use certain foods as though they were drugs is a frequent cause of weight gain, and can also be seen in patients who become fat when exposed to stress

So, How Can I Tell The Difference Between Real Hunger And Emotional Hunger?

There are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger:

1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.

2. When you are eating to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, usually something creamy or sweet or salty or crunchy or all of the above. And only that particular food will meet your need. Actual hunger usually doesn’t involve such specific cravings.

3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.

4. Even when you are full, if you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to keep eating. When you’re eating because you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop when you’re full.

5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.

Are You An Emotional Eater?

Maybe, maybe not.

If you want to be sure, here is a test from our good friends at Psychology Today that will let you know if you are an Emotional Eater.

Eating Disorders &
Emotional Eating Test

62 questions, 30-35 min

Do you have issues with food? Do you overeat, binge or obsess over calories? The Eating Disorders and Emotional Eating Test will assess your eating habits. It will evaluate whether your relationship to food is mentally healthy or damaging. It will also assess whether you have tendencies towards certain documented eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.

After finishing the Eating Disorders & Emotional Eating Test, you will receive a detailed, personalized interpretation of your score that includes diagrams, information on the test topic and tips.

So, Are you an Emotional Eater?

If so, come back tomorrow.

I hate to do this to you, but I am going to have to split this topic into a couple of posts.

In my next post, I will cover the strategies that are being used to combat Emotional Eating. I will also spend some time looking at the phenomena of Intuitive Eating.

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  1. I really wish diagnosis equaled successful treatment.

    Addictions need to be identified and treated as an addiction. Creative strategies do not work, because they depend on the addict to do them.

    It’s not pretty, but we are faced with ugly necessities.

  2. Not so sure about 100% of experts agreeing obesity is caused by overeating – it’s a bit long, but if you have time take a look at…


    I’m not at all convinced by everything he says, but some of his points are quite convincing! I know from experience that if I put on weight I need to eat better and exercise more and that’ll bring it down, and that’s probably true for most people. Maybe not everyone, though?

  3. I love reading Gary Taubes’ work. Very thought provoking.

    I am going to have to set aside some time (71 minutes???) to watch this.

    Thanks for the link Shadowduck

  4. […] Healthabits had a very insightful post “Emotional Eating: When Diets Don’t Work“. […]

  5. Agree with Shadowduck. There is no arrow of causality regarding positive caloric balance, so obesity doesn’t have to be caused by overeating and/or sedentary behavior. They could also be side effects of an underlying condition or obesity or a hormonal imabalance, for example.

    And to elaborate on the point, here are some quotes to ponder:

    “Even those people who are properly informed and anxious to exercise voluntary control, frequently fail in the prevention of overweight. Evidently, it is not an easy matter continuously to overrule persistent impulses. Unfortunately we cannot in most cases correct these impulses by attacking their source, namely, the anomaly of the regulatory mechanism; and so long as man has to rely on his will power to suppress persistent impulses, prevention of obesity will remain a relatively rare accomplishment.” -Hugo Rony, 1940

    “Positive caloric balance may be regarded as the cause of fatness when fatness is artificially produced in a normal person or animal by forced excessive feeding or forced rest, or both. But obesity ordinarilly develops spontaneously; some intrinsic abnormality seems to induce the body to establish positive caloric balance leading to fat accumulation. Positive caloric balance would be, then, a result rather than a cause of the condition.”

    ““Obesity, too many people believe, is explained by overeating; actually it should be recognized that this is simply restating the problem in a different way, and reaffirming (somewhat unnecessarily, more than a century after Robert Mayer and Joule) ones faith in the First Law of Thermodynamics,” writes Jean Mayer in 1954. “To ‘explain’ obesity by overeating is as illuminating a statement as an ‘explanation’ of alcoholism by chronic overdrinking.” -Jean Mayer

    “Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by will power are always an index of how much is not understood about the physical terrain of a disease.” -Susan Sontag

  6. Hmm. Intuitive eating as a strategy? Sounds to me a little like intuitive crack smoking!

    I’d like to see the study that shows “emotional eating” in a population that isn’t eating a predominantly processed or industrial food diet.

    I don’t know for sure, but I bet that “emotional” eating is really physiological and is more about out-of-whack brain chemistry. Feelings are just a trigger.

  7. Hey Beth,

    I agree with you that emotional eating is driven by physiological factors. Hormones driven out of whack by poor food choices leads to out of control hunger.

    In addition, I also believe that our (chock full of chronic stress) lifestyles affect another group of hormones – adrenalin, cortisol, etc

    This imbalance also contributes to overeating as we seek out serotonin boosting foods in order to balance out our happy/sad hormones.

    I won’t even try to describe the mess that occurs when a lifetime of poor eating choices reinforce neural pathways that encourage even more disordered eating.

    Stress, poor eating, bad lifestyle choices and lack of mental discipline have combined to create a perfect storm of obesity & chronic disease

  8. Thanks for the great post, and to everyone who commented, too. This is worth being reminded of, and thinking about how I can use this to improve my physical health.

    BTW, watch the wording. It’s “100% of experts believe that obesity is caused by overeating,” not “experts believe that 100% of obesity is caused by overeating.”

    I agree that some people might have medical conditions causing obesity, but maybe not as many as think they do. It’s an easy excuse, just like genetics.

  9. I agree with emotional eating. I don’t think it is the only cause of obesity though. I think this generation has just become lazy. We not only eat for emotional reason but we eat when we are bored.
    I know for myself I ate just because I had nothing else to do on the weekends or at night. I started taking Curb Burn so that I could stop craving the ice cream, pop corn, or chips and dip. It definitely helped me stop eating for no reason. From there the exercise and making myself not be lazy was up to me. Both combined really helped me start shedding the extra weight I needed.

    Overall I agree with both Beth and HealthHabits on your opinions.

  10. I agree–eating should make you feel good minus the guilt! It’s difficult to change the habit of craving processed foods when stressed/sad to craving something that won’t make you feel worse in the long run.

  11. Love that “emotional eating” test! I have a long standing eating disorder. I am physically OK (or so I thought until answering some of the questions: do you feel the cold when others don’t/do you bruise easily…etc) but mentally I mess with food, I go without food and as much as I don’t take my anger out by eating, I do go without eating when feeling low in order to feel too dizzy and hazy to focus on feeling anything any more.

    So I answered this questionnaire assuming it would tell me to go seek a Doctor ASAP.

    The result?
    0% Emotional eating. Apparently I do not have an eating disorder! I love this- maybe I should take up being a dietitian and advise others how to eat because obviously I have the right end of the stick here… LOL!

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