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10 Factors Influencing Emotional Eating

By Marion Holt February 27, 2024 Health and Fitness

Emotional eating, the act of consuming food in response to emotional triggers rather than physical hunger, is influenced by various psychological factors. Understanding these factors is crucial for unraveling the complex relationship between emotions and eating behavior.

Emotional eating usually develops gradually, influenced by a variety of emotional and psychological factors. It often begins as a seemingly innocent response to occasional emotional discomfort or stress. At first, it may provide a temporary sense of relief or distraction from negative emotions. For instance, after a particularly challenging day at work, indulging in a sweet treat may offer a brief escape and create a sense of comfort.

Over time, however, this occasional behavior can develop into a habitual pattern as the brain starts associating food with emotional relief. The brain’s reward system reinforces the connection between consuming certain foods and feeling better emotionally, leading to a cycle of emotional eating.

In this article, we will explore the psychological factors that contribute to emotional eating, shedding light on the intricate interplay between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Emotional Triggers and Emotional Regulation

Negative Emotions

Negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, sadness, or loneliness are common triggers for emotional eating. These emotions can disrupt emotional well-being and lead us to seek comfort or distraction through food.

Emotional Avoidance

Emotional eaters may engage in eating as a means of avoiding or numbing unpleasant emotions. By focusing on food, we can momentarily escape from emotional discomfort or suppress challenging feelings.

Emotional Regulation

Food can serve as a form of self-soothing or emotional regulation. Consuming palatable foods triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, providing a temporary mood boost and reducing emotional distress.

Cognitive Factors and Thought Patterns

Cognitive Distortions

Emotional eaters often experience cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing. These distorted thought patterns can contribute to emotional eating by intensifying negative emotions and leading to impulsive or irrational food choices.

Reward and Pleasure Seeking

Emotional eaters may associate certain foods with reward and pleasure, seeking them as a means of gratification or self-reward. This association reinforces the connection between emotions, food, and the temporary relief it provides.

Perceived Lack of Control

Feelings of powerlessness or a perceived lack of control in other areas of life can contribute to emotional eating. Turning to food allows us to exert control over their immediate environment and provides a temporary sense of empowerment.

Beliefs and Expectations

Beliefs and expectations about the effects of food on emotions can influence emotional eating. For example, we may hold the belief that certain foods can provide comfort or alleviate stress, leading them to seek out those foods during emotional episodes.

Body Image and Self-Esteem

Body Dissatisfaction

Body dissatisfaction and a negative body image can contribute to emotional eating. We may use food as a means of coping with feelings of inadequacy, seeking temporary relief from the distress associated with body dissatisfaction.

Self-Esteem and Emotional Eating

Low self-esteem can lead to emotional eating as a form of self-soothing or self-comfort. Food becomes a source of validation or temporary boost in self-worth, providing a sense of comfort or distraction from negative self-perceptions.

Shame and Guilt

Emotional eating can trigger feelings of shame and guilt, perpetuating the cycle of emotional eating. The act of overeating or consuming “forbidden” foods can intensify negative emotions, leading to further emotional eating as a means of coping with these feelings.

Strategies for Addressing Psychological Factors

Emotional Awareness

Developing emotional awareness is crucial for addressing emotional eating. By recognizing emotional triggers and understanding the underlying emotions, we can begin to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger.

Cognitive Restructuring

Challenging and reframing negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions can help us develop healthier responses to emotional triggers. Cognitive-behavioral techniques can assist in identifying and modifying unhelpful thoughts related to food and emotions.

Self-Compassion and Body Acceptance

Cultivating self-compassion and fostering a positive body image can reduce the reliance on emotional eating. Practicing self-care, self-acceptance, and engaging in activities that promote self-esteem can contribute to a healthier relationship with food and emotions.

Seek Support

Seeking support from healthcare professionals, therapists, or support groups can provide guidance, accountability, and validation in addressing psychological factors influencing emotional eating. Working with a professional can help us develop personalized strategies for managing emotions and building healthier coping mechanisms.

Psychological factors play a significant role in emotional eating. Understanding the emotional triggers, cognitive patterns, and body-related influences can empower us to address and overcome emotional eating behaviors. By developing emotional awareness, challenging distorted thoughts, cultivating self-compassion, and seeking support, we can navigate the psychological factors that contribute to emotional eating and work towards a healthier relationship with food and emotions.

Reclaiming control over your eating habits and fostering a healthier relationship with food and with yourself can be difficult, but it is possible. You can start your journey by getting my free e-Book here and learn how emotional eating began for you.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What psychological factors lead you to eat your emotions most frequently? How do you keep control over your eating habits despite these factors? Let us know in the comments.

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Toni Stritzke

Shedding guilt over food is a first step I believe.
Once no food is “off limit” it becomes easier to address triggers such as stress, poor self esteem, body image. Once the decks are clear, so to speak, you are better able to address the underlying issues. Noting what hunger feels like, is something we might have to reteach ourselves.

Last edited 1 month ago by Toni Stritzke
Marion Holt

Thank you for your comment, Toni. We, emotional eaters, often have lost touch with our body sensations, and you are perfectly right: relearning how physical hunger feels is a part of the process.

Judy P

My emotional eating started with a divorce. I feel being rejected after trying is something that i just couldnt handle. I was able to get thru that with friends and my small child at the time. Now 40 years later i was layed off after 39 years, another rejection. Its a struggle for me tho im staying positive. Here is to being retired and another chapter in my life.

Marion Holt

Thank you for your testimonial, Judy. Being rejected is never a pleasant feeling, in our personal lives or at work. My own emotional eating sure kicks in when triggered by rejection. It is okay to express your hurt and take time to let sometimes unpleasant emotions go through you. You don’t have to force yourself to be positive when it’s not the truth of what you feel. This is often when emotional eating kicks in, as we have to fill the gap between what we show outside, and how we truly feel inside. Take the time you need to process what has just happened. Then you will enjoy retirement twice more!

Shirley J

Thanks for this. Yes, This kind of eating happens when a lot of things – stress, plans, pile on me. Once I realize that a bit of tidying – my mind and my space – may help, I relax. Mind you, I may still eat that last bowl of chips, but this time I don’t let any guilt clutter my mind. Surprisingly, it reduces the guilt and overeating.

Marion Holt

Thank you for your comment, Shirley. You are absolutely right: not bashing ourselves when we fall for comfort food is an important step in our emotional eating recovery. Guilt is often an eating trigger for us, and the less we carry, the less triggered to eat we will be. Keep up the good work!

The Author

Certified professional coach Marion Holt has been an emotional eater since childhood. No longer. In her workbook series, Never Eat Your Emotions Again, she shares specific behavioral expertise and techniques for efficiently recovering from emotional eating. She’s helped many others going through their own journey to a healthier relationship with food – and a much more fulfilled life.

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