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Emotional Eating - How to Recognize the Causes and Gain Control

What is Emotional Eating?


Our emotional state can greatly influence our eating behavior. Both positive and negative emotions can contribute to us eating more than we would out of physical hunger. Emotional eating is defined as "a response to negative emotions such as sadness, anger, loneliness, anxiety, and frustration, as well as coping with these emotions."

In short, emotional eating is the reaction to negative or unpleasant feelings and their compensation through eating. A person who eats for emotional reasons hopes to get rid of these negative emotions and generate positive feelings through food intake. 

The reasons for food intake are therefore not physiological but rather emotional or psychological in origin. Many studies show that a high frequency of emotional eating behavior is associated with overweight. The reason for this is that the food choices of emotional eaters typically involve foods with very high fat and sugar content. Foods such as chocolate, ice cream, chips, gummy bears, cake, or fried foods are often chosen. Hardly anyone tries to eliminate their negative emotions by consuming a huge amount of raw vegetables. 

But why do we specifically reach for these high-calorie, fatty, and sugary foods when we feel bad? An explanation for this phenomenon will be provided in the next section when it comes to the causes of emotional eating. In general, the causal relationship between emotions and eating behavior is very complex.

Not only can the desire for food consumption arise from negative emotions, but also from positive emotions. For example, from joy, pride, or connection to other people. This shows us that emotionally driven eating does not necessarily have to be something bad.

Since we humans are social beings with a fairly strong sense of emotion (compared to animals), it is in a way completely "normal" for our feelings to partially (co-)control our eating behavior. However, some people develop a stronger emotional attachment to certain foods over the course of their lives, while others have a more neutral attitude. 

However, it can happen that negative emotions control our eating behavior so strongly that physical hunger is almost completely ignored or repeatedly disregarded. This is not good. Because even if we occasionally eat for emotional reasons, this should not always be the case. Likewise, greater attention should be paid to physical signals than to emotional ones. However, why some people completely lose control over their eating behavior as soon as negative emotions arise will be explained in the following section.

In-depth knowledge for your new & fit self.

Causes of Emotional Eating

emotional eating

Difficulty Regulating Emotions

Impulsive behavior when negative emotions arise is one of the main causes of emotional eating. The gap between stimulus (=negative feeling) and response (=overeating) is not used for reflection or understanding of the emotion but rather an immediate attempt is made to get rid of the feeling.

The more often one eats based on emotions, the stronger this conditioning and association between negative emotions and eating becomes. The more we repeat something, the more likely we are to act that way in the future, especially if a positive feeling (=reward) is felt shortly afterwards.

Often, a positive feeling is initially experienced after eating, as the consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods increases our dopamine levels. A negative feeling such as regret, shame, or feeling of fullness usually occurs later and is no longer linked to the negative emotion that triggered it.

The following illustration shows the typical process of a conditioned habit (such as the behavior of wanting to soothe negative emotions through eating).

habit loop

Evolutionary Reasons


Let's take a look into the past (Stone Age) and analyze the mechanisms that occurred during a stressful situation. It quickly becomes clear why we eat more in stressful situations. When we are stressed, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol. This causes our reptilian brain, which controls our instincts, to become more active. At the same time, the reflective and evaluative abilities of our brain are shut down.

What used to be the saber-toothed tiger is now the stress at work or in college. Our brain still reacts the same way as it did back then. Our survival instincts become active in stressful situations - and they just want us to survive, meaning take in all the food we can find, often far beyond physical hunger.

So far, we can conclude that emotional eating has saved our lives from an evolutionary perspective. However, since we now live in a different world where there are no famines or dangers of attacks from dangerous animals, we need better strategies to clarify to evolutionary drives that we are not actually in an emergency situation. For this, the first point mentioned above is relevant.

We need to learn to regulate our emotions. Emotional regulation in this sense does not mean suppressing emotions. The occurring emotions should first be perceived and named. Ask yourself: "What emotion am I feeling right now?" Is it perhaps frustration, anger, or stress? In the next step, it is important to use the space between stimulus and response to make a conscious decision instead of being controlled by instinctive drives.

Please do not misunderstand: Drives like hunger and thirst are vital and should not be ignored. Rather, it's about learning to differentiate between physical and emotional hunger. If we perceive emotional hunger and at the same time realize that we are physically full, then it's important not to be controlled by negative emotions but to think and act rationally.

We humans are the only beings capable of self-reflection and judging our thoughts. That's a good thing! It means we can influence our thought processes and what our future actions should look like.

Basically, the solution to emotional eating consists of three steps:

  1. Recognize the trigger situation

  2. Determine a solution strategy

  3. Apply the solution strategy each time a trigger situation arises

Let's now go through these three steps and various solution strategies in more detail in the next section.

How can we get emotional eating under control?

1. Recognize the trigger situation

As soon as the impulse of emotional eating arises within you, consciously acknowledge it. Analyze the situation. What exactly happened? Did you receive bad news from your boss or colleague? Did an argument occur, making you angry? Do you feel like you won't meet your deadlines? Are you under time pressure? Are you frustrated because you can't solve a work problem? Did your child's tantrums push you over the edge? Or are you using food to combat boredom or to avoid a tedious task you don't really want to do? Take note of what happened and how this feeling manifests in your body. Notice how the craving for food arises.


2. Determine a solution strategy

Next, develop solution strategies to help you resist the impulse and address your real problem at its root. Here are some suggestions for strategies that have proven effective in practice for emotional eating through studies and analyses.

Self-compassion instead of self-condemnation

We often treat ourselves very harshly and are quite strict with ourselves. The way we talk to ourselves is usually not how we would speak to our close friends. Expressing self-compassion and accepting our own behavior is an approach used in cognitive behavioral therapy in psychological treatments. More precisely, it's called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is used as a treatment therapy in various settings and has proven particularly effective for emotional eating.

The focus is not primarily on getting rid of symptoms and complaints but on shaping one's life in a way that creates a sense of meaning and value. It involves recognizing what truly matters in life and what one stands for. This provides stability and profound guidance in life. Having personal values to live by, such as "I want to be a role model for my family and children at all times," leads to taking responsibility for one's own life. It also helps one realize that the decisions one makes are controllable.

In short: when we have a deep sense of purpose in our being, it becomes easier for us to do things that align with that value and purpose.

By viewing ourselves as humans, without the expectation of always functioning like machines, we can cultivate compassion and acceptance for ourselves and our slip-ups. Instead of self-condemnation and beating ourselves up after an emotional eating episode, we should treat ourselves with compassion and respect. We align our lives and our daily actions with the values we have set for ourselves.



Linked to self-compassion, mindfulness comes into play. Being present and in the here and now promotes a loving relationship with oneself. Mindfulness can have a positive effect on all areas of life. Mindfulness also goes hand in hand with the first point, trigger awareness. By training our mindfulness, we can perceive triggers as such more quickly. We essentially reach a meta-level of our thoughts – observing our thoughts and actions from above.

This ability can be trained and promoted through regular practice. Mindfulness-based meditations, breathing exercises, and visualization techniques are very effective. Being mindful while eating is also a good alternative. Engaging in mindful eating, where you learn to consume your food with full enjoyment, can support building a new and appreciative relationship with your nutrition.

Analysis of Attitudes and Beliefs About One's Nutrition

Beliefs are thoughts and statements that we repeatedly think and no longer question. Often, we are not even aware that we have beliefs unless we take a closer look and consciously examine and question them. Beliefs usually result from our attitudes. For example, if you believe that you find it difficult to lose weight and are predisposed to being overweight, this may lead to the belief that "A diet won't work for me anyway." Beliefs are usually very rigid and inflexible.

Moreover, negative beliefs lead to helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and meaninglessness. They often stem from the experiences and events of our past. For instance, if we repeatedly failed in our initial attempts at dieting, the belief mentioned above may arise.

The good news, however, is that beliefs can be changed. There are not only negative beliefs but also positive ones that can positively change our lives. Beliefs significantly influence our lives and actions in the long term.

So, take a close look at your beliefs regarding your nutrition and critically question these beliefs. Replace negative beliefs with positive ones and ensure that your actions align with the positive beliefs. Because belief alone can move mountains.

social support

Social Support

Strong emotional support from our social environment can work like magic. Sometimes, simply turning to a good friend or partner in a trigger situation and sharing your feelings can help. Outsiders often have a different perspective on the situation than we do. As explained above, we are particularly in survival mode during stressful situations, which means we no longer think and act entirely rationally. An outsider can help rearrange the situation and provide a different perspective. Perhaps we just need a sympathetic ear to listen to us, and our negative emotions disappear.


It may sound simple, but it's helpful. Do you feel the urge to stuff yourself with food? Then resist the impulse and find a distraction. Activities that put you in a state of flow, where you are completely immersed and forget about time and everything around you, are best suited. Consider what personally puts you in a state of flow and engage in that activity. Even simple things like taking a walk, doing household chores, exercising, reading a book, listening to an audiobook, listening to music, dancing, painting, or other activities you passionately enjoy are suitable.

Stress Reduction

If you lead a very stressful life, it may be necessary to take a deeper look and address your overall lifestyle. What can you do to have less stress in your life? Are you a people pleaser and always feel the need to help everyone, resulting in having no free time and doing many things you don't really want to do? Take a closer look here and assess how much you sacrifice yourself for others and whether you neglect yourself in the process.

Where can you say no to projects in the future? Where can you delegate tasks to others? What do you think you must do when, in reality, you don't have to do it? Do you have a perfectionist mindset and never think you're good enough? If so, then you should work on that. Such stressful burdens can lead to abnormal eating behavior and are not healthy for us in the long run.

Moreover, targeted relaxation training in the form of progressive muscle relaxation or autogenic training can help reduce stress or develop a better coping mechanism for stress.

Expert Nutritional Counseling or Therapy

Do you feel like you can't break out of the negative behavior spiral on your own? Have none of the above-mentioned strategies shown effectiveness? Then it may make sense to seek professional help. Trained nutritionists, dietitians, or psychological counselors should be your first point of contact. Consulting with a neutral person with the appropriate training to develop strategies together and explore the underlying causes of emotional eating can be helpful.

Apply the Solution Strategy Every Time a Trigger Situation Arises

eating healthy

Emotions generally don't last longer than a few minutes. These minutes are the aforementioned "space between stimulus and response." By extending this space to approximately 2 minutes instead of immediately reacting to the stimulus, we can regain control of our behavior. If we take the time in this 2-minute space to apply one of the strategies mentioned above, we will see that after a few minutes, the emotion has completely disappeared, and we are back in a "neutral" emotional state.

This allows us to regain control over our emotions and eating behavior.

Admittedly, this requires some practice. Especially if you have been eating very emotionally for a long time and have forgotten how to listen to your physical hunger. Because the more often we do something, the more entrenched and automated the habit becomes, and the harder it is to break it. Nevertheless, it's possible to break any bad habit and establish good habits.

Practice and constant reflection are the keys to regaining control over emotional eating.

I sincerely hope that this article has helped you understand the reasons for emotional eating.

Perhaps you can apply and try out one or more of the strategies in the future. 

Vanessa Gaber

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Sources Of Information:

  • van Strien T. Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Curr Diab Rep. 2018 Apr 25;18(6):35. doi: 10.1007/s11892-018-1000-x. PMID: 29696418; PMCID: PMC5918520.

  • Konttinen H, van Strien T, Männistö S, Jousilahti P, Haukkala A. Depression, emotional eating and long-term weight changes: a population-based prospective study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2019 Mar 20;16(1):28. doi: 10.1186/s12966-019-0791-8. PMID: 30894189; PMCID: PMC6427874.

  • Lazarevich I, Irigoyen Camacho ME, Velázquez-Alva MDC, Zepeda Zepeda M. Relationship among obesity, depression, and emotional eating in young adults. Appetite. 2016 Dec 1;107:639-644. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.09.011. Epub 2016 Sep 13. PMID: 27620648.

  • Macht M. How emotions affect eating: a five-way model. Appetite. 2008 Jan;50(1):1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.07.002. Epub 2007 Jul 25. PMID: 17707947.


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