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Emotional eating is defined as the "propensity to eat in response to positive and negative emotions." While the term emotional eating often refers to eating as a means of coping with negative emotions, it also includes eating for positive emotions such as eating foods when celebrating an event or eating to enhance an already good mood. In these situations, emotions are still driving the eating but not in a negative way.
Emotional eating includes eating in response to any emotion, whether that be positive or negative. Most frequently, people refer to emotional eating as "eating to cope with negative emotions." In these situations, emotional eating can be considered a form of disordered eating which is defined as "an increase in food intake in response to negative emotions" and can be considered a maladaptive strategy. More specifically, emotional eating in order to relieve negative emotions would qualify as a form of emotion-focused coping, which attempts to minimize, regulate, and prevent emotional distress.
A study conducted by Bennett et al. found that emotional eating sometimes does not reduce emotional distress but instead enhances emotional distress by sparking feelings of intense guilt after an emotional eating session. Those that eat as a coping strategy are at an especially high risk of developing binge-eating disorder, and those with eating disorders are at a higher risk to engage in emotional eating as a means to cope. In a clinical setting, emotional eating can be assessed by the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire which contains a scale for restrained, emotional and external eating. Other questionnaires such as the Palatable Eating Motives Scale can determine reasons why a person eats tasty foods when they are not hungry; sub-scales include eating for reward enhancement, coping, social, and conformity.
Emotional eating usually occurs when one is attempting to satisfy his or her hedonic drive, or the drive to eat palatable food to obtain pleasure in the absence of an energy deficit but can also occur when one is seeking food as a reward, eating for social reasons (such as eating at a party), or eating to conform (which involves eating because friends or family wants the individual to). When one is engaging in emotional eating, they are usually seeking out palatable foods (such as sweets) rather than just food in general. In some cases, emotional eating can lead to something called "mindless eating" during which the individual is eating without being mindful of what or how much they are consuming; this can occur during both positive and negative settings.
Emotional hunger does not originate from the stomach, such as with a rumbling or growling stomach, but tends to start when a person thinks about a craving or wants something specific to eat. Emotional responses are also different. Giving in to a craving or eating because of stress can cause feelings of regret, shame, or guilt, and these responses tend to be associated with emotional hunger. On the other hand, satisfying a physical hunger is giving the body the nutrients or calories it needs to function and is not associated with negative feelings.
Major theories Behind Eating to CopeEdit
Current research suggests that certain individual factors may increase one's likelihood of using emotional eating as a coping strategy. The inadequate affect regulation theory posits that individuals engage in emotional eating because they believe overeating alleviates negative feelings. Escape theory builds upon inadequate affect regulation theory by suggesting that people not only overeat to cope with negative emotions, but they find that overeating diverts their attention away from a stimuli that is threatening self-esteem to focus on a pleasurable stimuli like food. Restraint theory suggests that overeating as a result of negative emotions occurs among individuals who already restrain their eating. While these individuals typically limit what they eat, when they are faced with negative emotions they cope by engaging in emotional eating. Restraint theory supports the idea that individuals with other eating disorders are more likely to engage in emotional eating. Together these three theories suggest that an individual's aversion to negative emotions, particularly negative feelings that arise in response to a threat to the ego or intense self-awareness, increase the propensity for the individual to utilize emotional eating as a means of coping with this aversion.
The biological stress response may also contribute to the development of emotional eating tendencies. In a crisis, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is secreted by the hypothalamus, suppressing appetite and triggering the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal gland. These steroid hormones increase appetite and, unlike CRH, remain in the bloodstream for a prolonged period of time, often resulting in hyperphagia. Those who experience this biologically instigated increase in appetite during times of stress are therefore primed to rely on emotional eating as a coping mechanism.
Overall, high levels of the negative affect trait are related to emotional eating. Negative affectivity is a personality trait involving negative emotions and poor self-concept. It has been found that certain negative affect regulation scales predicted emotional eating. An inability to articulate and identify one's emotions made the individual feel inadequate at regulating negative affect and thus more likely to engage in emotional eating as a means for coping with those negative emotions. A study conducted by Spoor et al. attempted to further delineate the relationship between negative affect and emotional eating. They found that negative affect was not significantly related to emotional eating when taking into consideration emotion focused coping and avoidance distraction behavior. This suggests that negative affect is not independently related to emotional eating but is instead indirectly related through emotional focused coping and avoidance distraction behavior. While Spence and Spoor's findings differed somewhat, they both suggest that negative affect does play a role in emotional eating but it may be accounted for by other variables.
For some people, emotional eating is a learned behavior. During childhood, their parents give them treats to help them deal with a tough day or situation, or as a reward for something good. Over time, the child who reaches for a cookie after getting a bad grade on a test may become an adult who grabs a box of cookies after a rough day at work. In an example such as this, the roots of emotional eating are deep, which can make breaking the habit extremely challenging. In some cases, individuals may eat in order to conform; for example, individuals may be told "you have to finish your plate" and the individual may eat past the point in which they feel satisfied.
Emotional eating as a means to cope may be a precursor to developing eating disorders such as binge eating or bulimia nervosa. The relationship between emotional eating and other disorders is largely due to the fact that emotional eating and these disorders share key characteristics. More specifically, they are both related to emotion focused coping, maladaptive coping strategies, and a strong aversion to negative feelings and stimuli. It is important to note that the causal direction has not been definitively established, meaning that while emotional eating is considered a precursor to these eating disorders, it may be also be the consequence of these disorders. The latter hypothesis that emotional eating happens in response to another eating disorder is supported by research that has shown emotional eating to be more common among individuals already suffering from bulimia nervosa.
Biological and environmental factorsEdit
Stress affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a "hunger hormone," may have a role. Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions. These foods really are "comfort" foods in that they seem to counteract stress. This may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods. Individual differences in the physiological stress response may also contribute to the development of emotional eating habits. Those whose adrenal glands naturally secrete larger quantities of glucocorticoids in response to a stressor are more inclined toward hyperphagia, which can act as a physiological catalyst for emotional eating. Additionally, those whose bodies require more time to clear the bloodstream of excess glucocorticoids are similarly predisposed. These biological factors can interact with environmental elements to further trigger hyperphagia, namely the type of stressor the individual is subjected to. Frequent intermittent stressors trigger repeated, sporadic releases of glucocorticoids broken up by intervals too short to allow for a complete return to baseline levels, leading to increased appetite. Those whose lifestyles or careers entail frequent intermittent stressors thus have greater biological incentive to develop patterns of emotional eating.
Emotional eating may qualify as avoidant coping and/or emotion-focused coping. As coping methods that fall under these broad categories focus on temporary reprieve rather than practical resolution of stressors, they can initiate a vicious cycle of maladaptive behavior reinforced by fleeting relief from stress. Additionally, in the presence of high insulin levels characteristic of the recovery phase of the stress-response, glucocorticoids trigger the creation of an enzyme that stores away the nutrients circulating in the bloodstream after an episode of emotional eating as visceral fat, or fat located in the abdominal area. Therefore, those who struggle with emotional eating are at greater risk for abdominal obesity, which is in turn linked to a greater risk for metabolic and cardiovascular disease.
There are numerous ways in which individuals can reduce emotional distress without engaging in emotional eating as a means to cope. The most salient choice is to minimize maladaptive coping strategies and to maximize adaptive strategies. A study conducted by Corstorphine et al. in 2007 investigated the relationship between distress tolerance and disordered eating. These researchers specifically focused on how different coping strategies impact distress tolerance and disordered eating. They found that individuals who engage in disordered eating often employ emotional avoidance strategies. If an individual is faced with strong negative emotions, they may choose to avoid the situation by distracting themselves through overeating. Discouraging emotional avoidance is thus an important facet to emotional eating treatment. The most obvious way to limit emotional avoidance is to confront the issue through techniques like problem solving. Corstorphine et al. showed that individuals who engaged in problem solving strategies enhance one's ability to tolerate emotional distress. Since emotional distress is correlated to emotional eating, the ability to better manage one's negative affect should allow an individual to cope with a situation without resorting to overeating.
One way to combat emotional eating is to employ mindfulness techniques. For example, approaching cravings with a nonjudgmental inquisitiveness can help differentiate between hunger and emotionally-driven cravings. An individual may ask his or herself if the craving developed rapidly, as emotional eating tends to be triggered spontaneously. An individual may also take the time to note his or her bodily sensations, such as hunger pangs, and coinciding emotions, like guilt or shame, in order to make conscious decisions to avoid emotional eating.
Emotional eating can also be improved by evaluating physical facets like hormone balance. Female hormones, in particular, can alter cravings and even self-perception of one's body. Additionally, emotional eating can be exacerbated by social pressure to be thin. The focus on thinness and dieting in our culture can make young girls, especially, vulnerable to falling into food restriction and subsequent emotional eating behavior.
Emotional eating disorder predisposes individuals to more serious eating disorders and physiological complications. Therefore, combatting disordered eating before such progression takes place has become the focus of many clinical psychologists.
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