The link between food, mood and emotional eating is a hefty subject that’s not to be taken lightly. But digging in can really open up some interesting patterns and information.
Emotional eating is more common than often admitted and is defined as “eating in response to negative emotions or stress”. In today’s society, we have far greater amounts of stress and negative emotions than around 20-30 years ago. Not only that, we also have far greater pressures to look a certain way and follow these ‘diets’ or consume ‘diet products’ that are heavily marketed to us as ‘healthy weight loss’. It’s no wonder we can find ourselves staring down the rabbit hole and feeling overwhelmed.
When you have these days that are stressful, generally your mood is a little bit down in the dumps, the first thing you do is reach for your “comfort foods”. These are the foods that are known to make you feel good, boost your mood and lift your spirits. Often these are high in sugar, salt and fat; again, completely normal behaviour. Yet we all sit here and wonder why we do it!
The science behind it is way more complex, but in summary I’ll give you the highlights (and none of the confusing jargon).
When we eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat, they are quick to jump into our blood streams and act fast, this meaning we get a very sharp increase in energy and ‘happy hormones’ (serotonin and dopamine). We feel better and our mood is lifted- happy days! But this only lasts a short period of time. The energy gets used up quickly and we get a ‘crash’ in energy, suddenly feeling tired and having a dip in mood again. This can lead to a cycle of eating, where we always reach for these “comfort foods” when our mood is down and also leading us down the path of guilt and shame for falling into these patterns.
Now, there is not just one cause of emotional eating, it’s always a little different for everyone- hence why personalised support is always highly advised versus blanket advice.
One factor that can cause emotion eating is ‘dieting’ and ‘energy-restriction’. When you start to restrict food and put yourself into an energy deficit to lose weight, your body is unable to tell that this is being done on purpose with the aim to lose weight, and acts as if it is in starvation mode. It goes to its default settings to slow down your metabolic rate and increase your hunger and appetite. At this point, all you can probably think about is food and what you’re going to eat next- your body’s way of trying to get you to feed it the energy it needs. In these situations, you are more likely to be craving foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat. These ‘restrictive diets’ affect you psychologically, increasing the feeling of deprivation, categorising ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and forcing yourself to not being allowed certain foods. This negative emotion and stress leads to a higher intake of foods.
So, after finishing your diet and going back to ‘normal’ eating, it’s likely that you end up regaining the weight that you lost, plus some more, as it’s your bodies response to the conditions it was in and subconsciously making you want/eat more foods than you would.
Continuing in these patterns can increase the risk of losing feeling of hunger and satiety, and increase the risk of developing insulin sensitivity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Other factors can be:
- Overeating when negative emotions hit
- Overeating when you smell delicious foods
- Overeating when you come in contact with foods you have forced yourself to stop eating, due to labelling them ‘bad’
- Overeating when you get bad news
…and the list goes on. The situation is unique to you and why it causes you to be an emotional eater.
Below, is a diagram that shows just a handful of the factors affecting eating habits and emotional eating.
What can I do to help with emotional eating?
First off, find a registered professional to talk to and see what advice they can give. Remember, personalised advice is going to be much more helpful to you in the long run for sustainable changes.
Another good idea is to try and get 6-8 hours of sleep a night and reduce your stress levels the best you can. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day can really improve mental health and sleep patterns. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme, picking up your pace whilst walking, jogging, home workouts, lifting weights, playing a sport, yoga- whatever you enjoy!
Some small dietary changes:
- Aim to eat your 5-a-day
- Fresh, frozen, dried, tinned (in water or own juices) all count!
- Integrate more wholegrain foods that will release energy much slower (low GI)
- Wholemeal bread, rice and pasta
- Sweet potatoes
- Grains, beans, pulses and lentils
- Wholegrain breakfast cereals (oats, Weetabix, bran flakes etc.)
- Try to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day
- Aim to reduce the amounts of red meats, processed foods, and full fat dairy products consumed per week
- Swap out foods like; sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, crisps etc. Find alternatives that aren’t going to give you that quick energy hit and are lower in sugar, salt and fat.
It’s key to remember, that these emotional eating responses have built up over time, and so they aren’t going to disappear in the blink of an eye. It will be a long process, but celebrating small achievements, keeping a positive mindset and reflecting on how far you have come are all worthwhile markers to look back on. But, also remembering that you are not alone and there are more people than you realise going through their own version of emotional eating.
- S. et al (2003) Emotional Eating, Alexithymia, and Binge-Eating Disorder in Obese Women. North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) (V11.2, pg 195-201).
- Van Strien. T. (2018) Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Springer (doi: 1007/s11892-018-1000-x)
- J., Gangwisch. J.E., Borsini. A., Wootton. R.E. & Mayer. E.A (2020). Food and Mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ2020;369:m2382
- Diabetes UK (2021). Emotional Eating and Feasting. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/enjoy-food/eating-with-diabetes/food-psychology/emotional-eating-and-feasting
Steph Hayes is a Registered Associate Nutritionist and her website can be found here: https://stephhayesnutrition.com/