The Facts About Emotional Eating

Want to have your cake and eat it, too? What you don’t know about emotional eating—why we’re wired to do it and why (sometimes) it’s not such a bad thing. 

By Alice Oglethorpe and Noelle Howey, additional reporting by Julia Edelstein
Model sitting behind a tiered cake looking sadGeof Kern

“I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them,” wrote Nora Ephron in Heartburn. If only most of us were so philosophical about the way we eat when we’re in the throes of a powerful emotion.

Unfortunately, after we celebrate our promotion with champagne and cupcakes or drown our romantic woes in a bowl of spaghetti, we tend to feel remorseful. “I indulged myself,” we might confess, in a hushed tone, to a friend the next day. (Even our choice of word—indulge—is loaded, as it implies we are engaging in a vaguely illicit behavior.)

But is this self-flagellation really necessary? Some experts say no. “It’s healthy to emotionally eat once in a while—to eat for comfort, to celebrate, or just because,” says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the author of The Self-Compassion Diet ($17, amazon.com). “Sure, you could go for a walk or head to the gym, but sometimes an ice cream sundae is just the thing.”

Of course, no one is suggesting that it’s a good idea to routinely pull a Liz Lemon on a gallon of rocky road. Frequent, heavy emotional eating can be a serious issue. However, doing it occasionally might not be all bad. Both your body and psyche are hardwired to make connections between how you feel and what’s on your plate. It’s the way you handle—and regulate—your eating that makes the difference between a pleasurable endeavor and a real health concern.

Your Physical Cravings, Demystified

Your body is no dummy. There’s a reason it yearns for a bowl of crunchy-top macaroni and cheese or a sliver of warm apple pie. “Foods that are laden with carbohydrates, sugar, or fat simply taste delicious,” says Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise psychology at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.

But surprise! Flavor is only part of the reason you crave these foods. Your brain chemistry actually changes when you bite into a bagel or a Twizzler. “Carbohydrates set off a series of chemical reactions that ultimately lead to a boost in brain serotonin,” says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., the former director of the Research Program in Women’s Health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clinical Research Center. The higher the levels of serotonin, the more content you feel (at least temporarily). No wonder cutting out carbs can make you grumpy: A 2009 study from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, in Adelaide, Australia, found that low-carbohydrate dieters registered the lowest moods.

The same goes for fatty foods. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, subjects were fed through a stomach tube with either a solution of fatty acids or saline. Both groups then listened to music proven to evoke a negative or neutral emotion. Those given the fat were less sad, and brain scans showed dampened activity in areas associated with sadness. The researchers believe this shows that fatty acids can induce a signal from your gut to your brain, which may influence emotions.

There are times when we are more physically vulnerable to these triggers—for example, during periods of stress. “Chronic stress creates elevated levels of the hormone cortisol,” says Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., a family practitioner in New York City and the author of Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind ($26, amazon.com). Your body thinks you’re going through a famine, he explains, which can increase your cravings.

Exhaustion is a contributing factor, too. In a 2012 study, Columbia University and St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center researchers found that when subjects were sleep-deprived, seeing pictures of unhealthy foods activated reward centers in their brains. Those centers were less active when the participants were fully rested. Increased reward-center activity may make a person more likely to eat. (See, that’s why you scarfed those doughnut holes while pulling an all-nighter for work.)

 
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