Understanding emotional eating

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Of all the possible reasons for overeating, “emotional” factors are among the most common. I’m sure we’d all admit to having overeaten in response to a stressful event or an emotional upset at some point in our lives. It’s generally thought that understanding the reasoning behind emotional ‘comfort’ eating can help us control it. 

It’s not immediately obvious why people respond to anxiety or stress by overeating. Why, for example, don’t they respond to emotional upset by walking, sleeping or singing? Nobody ever says they are an “emotional exerciser” or an “emotional sleeper”. What is it about eating that seems to make it the preferred option?

The reason appears to be that the structures in the brain dealing with our emotions (the limbic system), are closely connected with the structures responsible for controlling our appetite, especially the pleasure-based hedonic system. 

In circumstances where we feel emotionally upset, anxious or stressed, it would seem natural for us to soothe our painful emotions or reward ourselves by engaging in an activity such as eating which is both pleasurable (the hedonic system) and biologically useful (storing fat for survival). So, in the same way that we are hard wired to eat, many of us are hard-wired to eat in response to our emotions. 

It’s becoming a problem because we have lost the capacity to discriminate between wanting and needing and because we live in an environment in which this “emotional” eating response is regularly triggered. This is illustrated in many advertising campaigns where we are encouraged to eat what we want, rather than what we need (remember “naughty but nice”). Food advertisers are continually trying to convince us that if we don’t have it, we are somehow depriving ourselves.

The real problem comes when we try to lose weight. Reducing our energy intake in order to lose weight means we have to eat less than we want and this causes a perception of deprivation. That’s why diets alone rarely work as unless you learn the behavioural strategies to combat this feeling, the hedonistic drive to eat invariably becomes too powerful to ignore and the diet fails.


Boredom and habit can play a bit part in this, so try occupying yourself by playing some music, calling a friend or going for a walk. You will find that the urge to eat is remarkably short-lived. 

Mindful eating

If you’re finding that you’re feeling hungry immediately after eating, then it’s likely you’re not eating mindfully. By this we mean that you are eating with distractions, for example the TV is on or you’re eating at your desk at work. We encourage that you take a break from your day when you eat. Stick to a regular time for each meal and eat without distractions, being mindful of each bite. 


Put a notice on the fridge or cupboard door saying “Do I WANT it or do I NEED it” and when you feel an urge to binge, pause and ask yourself whether you want the food because you need it, or just because you want it. Most of the time the answer will be obvious and should be enough to make you think twice.

Environmental control

All the evidence suggests that limiting your exposure to temptation is by far the most effective way of dealing with emotional eating. Put simply, the most powerful way to stop you eating ice-cream or chocolate is not to have the ice-cream or chocolate in your house to begin with. If it’s there you’ll eat it, and if it’s not you can’t! Clear out tempting treats from your home and office environment as much as possible.


It can be helpful to use visual tools to remind you of your goals. Whether that be a picture of yourself at a heavier weight that you want to leave behind or a statement of intent “I will be 2 stone lighter by Sarah’s wedding!” One of these on the biscuit tin or strategically placed on your bathroom mirror will be a frequent reminder of what you’re doing and why it’s more important to you than the food you’re considering.

Record Keeping

Another really effective way of changing the pattern of emotional eating is to keep a record of which situations tend to result in emotional cues to eating. If you know what they are – you can take practical steps to avoid them. If – despite your best efforts you do succumb – record how you felt. Did it really taste as good as you imagined? The chances are that it didn’t do for you what you thought it would. 

Picture of Martyn Berrett

Martyn Berrett

Martyn is the former MD of Healthier Weight. Throughout his tenure he observed many bariatric procedures and took part in several research projects so has a unique perspective on all things weight loss.

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