Most of us have experienced the desire to head for the food cupboard after a stressful day at work. Likewise, many people know what it’s like to crave chocolate after a break-up or similar emotional event.

‘Emotional eating’ is the term used by psychologists to describe eating in response to a negative emotion such as sadness or stress. Emotional eaters are at greater risk of becoming obese, and developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They also tend to show preference for eating sugary, high carbohydrate foods.

Why do people emotionally eat?

Multiple explanations have been put forward to try and explain the relationship between our emotions and eating behaviour. One theory suggests that emotional eaters have difficulty regulating negative emotions and instead use food as a way to improve their mood. Sugary, high carbohydrate foods stimulate the production of the feel-good hormone serotoni, which leaves us feeling calmer and more relaxed. Tryptophan is required to make serotonin in the body. Chocolate contains tryptopha, and most chocolate also contains sugar. Hence, we tend to reach for these types of foods in times of distress.

The association between stress and comfort eating may have its roots in our childhood, since parents tend to use sweet foods to soothe or reward children. Alongside serotoni, dopamine is also released when we eat sugary foods which in turn activates our reward centre. Research has discovered that children who have been rewarded with food are more likely to use it to deal with stress when they’re older. Emotional eating has been demonstrated in children as young as five.

The answer could also lie within our biology. When we experience a stressful event, our adrenal glands release cortisol, the stress hormone, which in the short term provides energy in the form of glucose for our ‘fight or flight’ response. The problem arises when stress persists and cortisol levels remain high. When this happens, our glucose levels stay elevated, triggering the release of insulin which both increases our appetite and causes us to store fat.

So there are multiple reasons for emotional eating, but what can we do to help tackle the cravings?


Recognise your triggers

Identifying which events you find stressful could be the first step in stopping the urge in its tracks. To look for patterns between emotions and food it may be beneficial to keep a food diary to track what you eat, what happened that day and how you’re feeling. That packet of biscuits you ate could have been the consequence of a stressful commute.

Look for alternatives

Once you have identified which events lead to emotional eating then it can become easier to think of alternatives. Brisk walking, meditation and reading have all been proven to reduce stress levels, some other examples could include listening to music or watching a funny film.

Be more mindful

The practice of mindfulness involves drawing your attention to the present moment – your thoughts, feelings and the world around you. Being mindful with food refers to acknowledging how you feel before, during and after eating. A literature review into mindfulness-based interventions found that participants who were taught to pay attention to and accept their negative feelings were less likely to use food as a way of coping. In practice, before you reach for the food cupboard it may be helpful to identify if what you’re feeling is physical or emotional hunger.

Reduce your carbohydrate intake

Feeling sad or depressed can cause us to crave high carbohydrate foods. Evidence has suggested that switching to a low carbohydrate diet can help to regulate mood, thus reducing our reliance on sugary foods to help us feel better. One suggestion could be switching from milk chocolate to dark chocolate, which contains more tryptopha, but doesn’t have as much sugar.

Seek support

Reaching out to friends or family can prove beneficial in helping us cope with stressful or sad events. But if you’re finding it difficult to find alternatives to emotional eating, it might be helpful seeking professional support. One example is through Cognitive-Emotional-Behaviour Therapy (CEBT) which seeks to help individuals understand their negative feelings and look for alternative ways to regulate their emotions. It has demonstrated to be effective at reducing the urge to eat in response to negative feelings.

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