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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

 

The Quest for Comfort

Biology isn’t the only reason we eat emotionally. Think back: Since day one, when we were fed in a mother’s or father’s arms, we have associated food with comfort, says Michelle May, M.D., the founder of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program, in Phoenix, and the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat ($20, amazon.com). As a child, you probably got the food-as-soother message in countless other ways, too: Remember the lollipop the doctor always handed out after a visit? The teacher who rewarded A students with ice cream?

By adulthood that association becomes ingrained in our minds, says Craig Johnson, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in eating disorders and the chief clinical officer of the Eating Recovery Center, in Denver: “Children’s brains sometimes aren’t developed enough to use words to deal with complex feelings, so they may use food to self-regulate emotions.”

That’s even more likely if your parents modeled that behavior. In a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers brought together mother-preschooler pairs. They asked the moms to rate their own emotional-eating habits. Then they devised an activity during which snacks would be offered to the children. The preschoolers whose moms reported regulating their feelings with food ate more snacks than did the other children.

We’re also more likely to indulge (there’s that word again) when we’re trying to bond with others. A 2001 study from Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, showed that people consume more in a group than they do alone, regardless of hunger levels. Eating socially “may help you feel like you’re strengthening relationships,” says Jennifer Taitz, a clinical psychologist in New York City and the author of End Emotional Eating ($18, amazon.com). Why? In that moment, united by a mutual desire to, say, conquer a piece of peanut butter pie, “everyone feels connected to one another.”

When It’s a Problem

If you’re unsure whether your emotional eating has gone too far, ask yourself these questions.

  • Do you frequently eat when you feel emotional but not particularly hungry?
    “When a desire or a craving comes from something other than hunger, eating can’t satisfy it,” says May. “If you are eating but don’t physically need the food, you’ll never feel satisfied.” In fact, research published in the journal Obesity in 2007 found that dieters who ate according to internal emotional cues, such as loneliness, instead of physical or external cues lost less weight over time and were more likely to gain it back.
  • Instead of confronting a problem, do you hit the refrigerator?
    Psychologists say that numbing yourself with food rather than dealing with your feelings can increase stress, which in turn can raise your blood pressure and weaken your immune system.
  • Do you punish yourself after having a treat?
    Guilt can lead to uncontrolled eating, says Georgia Kostas, a Dallas-based registered dietitian and the author of The Cooper Clinic Solution to the Diet Revolution ($35, amazon.com): “If you feel bad about eating a scoop of ice cream, excess guilt may lead you to eat the whole carton. Now you’ve destroyed any pleasure you had hoped to derive from the ice cream.”
  • Finally, do you regularly overeat those carby, fatty foods?
    (You know—the ones you crave the most.) Here’s how to know: “Make good food choices about 90 percent of the time,” says Kostas, “and reserve the other 10 percent for ‘fun calories.’ ” If your comfort-food intake often exceeds that percentage, consider cutting back.

Need more incentive? Recent research indicates that eating a lot of fatty foods can end up negatively affecting your mood over time. In a 2012 study from the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre, researchers fed mice diets with different amounts of fat. After 12 weeks, the mice that were fed a higher-fat diet showed more signs of depression and anxiety. The takeaway: Although you initially may feel euphoric from eating fatty foods, the more you do it, the worse you feel. The recipe for true happiness just might be healthy, balanced meals, followed now and then by dessert—and as the ever wise Nora Ephron advised, no regrets.

 
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