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Unveiling the 8 Root Causes of Emotional Eating

By Marion Holt October 23, 2023 Health and Fitness

Emotional eating is a complex behavior that often stems from underlying emotional, psychological, and environmental factors. It develops gradually, influenced by a variety of factors. Understanding the root causes of emotional eating is crucial in addressing this issue, unraveling its origins, and developing effective strategies to break free from its grip.

In this article, we will explore some common root causes of emotional eating, focusing on the psychological, environmental, and physiological factors involved, and shedding light on the deep-seated triggers that drive this eating behavior so many of us are struggling with.

How Emotional Eating Begins

Emotional eating 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, or after an argument with a loved one, 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.

Emotional eating can also arise from a lack of effective coping mechanisms. When faced with intense emotions, individuals may struggle to identify healthier alternatives for managing their feelings. Without appropriate tools to address emotional distress, turning to food becomes an easily accessible and familiar coping mechanism.

The immediate gratification and temporary distraction provided by food can become deeply ingrained, leading to a reliance on emotional eating as the primary method of emotional regulation. This reliance can persist even when individuals are aware that there are more constructive ways to cope with their emotions.

Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers play a significant role in emotional eating. Negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, sadness, or loneliness can lead individuals to seek comfort, solace, and distraction through food.

Food becomes a coping mechanism to temporarily numb or soothe emotional pain. The act of eating in itself becomes a coping mechanism to temporarily alleviate emotional discomfort or pain.

Additionally, positive emotions like excitement or celebration may also trigger emotional eating as individuals associate food with reward or pleasure.

Learned Behavior

Emotional eating can be learned through childhood experiences and social conditioning. For example, if a child receives food as a reward or consolation, they may develop a learned response that associates food with emotional comfort.

Similarly, observing family members or peers engaging in emotional eating can normalize this behavior and perpetuate it into adulthood. These learned associations and behaviors become deeply ingrained and can be challenging to break free from later in life.

Stress and Coping Mechanisms

Stress is a significant contributor to emotional eating. When faced with high levels of stress, the body releases cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite and cravings for sugary and fatty foods.

The consumption of these foods triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, providing a temporary source of pleasure and relief. The association between stress, food, and the resulting neurochemical response can create a powerful reinforcement loop, leading to emotional eating as a habitual response to stressors.

Emotional eaters may turn to food as a quick and accessible means of stress relief. The act of eating can temporarily distract from stressors and provide a sense of control or comfort.

Lack of Emotional Awareness

A lack of emotional awareness is another factor contributing to initiating emotional eating. Many emotional eaters struggle with identifying, understanding, and processing their emotions effectively. They may have difficulty differentiating between physical and emotional hunger.

Emotional eating becomes a default response, as it provides temporary relief without addressing the underlying emotional needs. The lack of emotional awareness hinders the development of healthier coping mechanisms and perpetuates the reliance on food for emotional regulation.

Emotional Associations and Comfort

Emotional eating often begins as individuals form associations between specific foods and emotional comfort. Certain foods, particularly those high in sugar, fat, or salt, can trigger the release of neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and reward. Over time, individuals develop a preference for these specific foods when seeking emotional relief.

Consuming them becomes a habit, as they provide a temporary escape from negative emotions and create a sense of comfort or nostalgia.

Childhood and Past Trauma

Childhood trauma or past emotional wounds can contribute to emotional eating patterns. Food may serve as a source of emotional safety or act as a protective shield against painful memories or unresolved trauma. The act of eating can evoke feelings of comfort, security, or familiarity, temporarily alleviating emotional distress linked to past experiences.

Negative Body Image and Self-Esteem

Negative body image and low self-esteem can be root causes of emotional eating. Individuals with poor body image may turn to food for comfort or to numb their negative feelings about their appearance. Emotional eating provides a temporary escape from negative self-perception and offers a false sense of control or self-soothing.

Environmental and Cultural Factors

Environmental and cultural factors in which someone grows up and live can also contribute to emotional eating. Living in an environment surrounded by highly palatable, readily available, and heavily marketed unhealthy food options can trigger emotional eating, making it more accessible and tempting.

Additionally, cultural traditions or social gatherings that revolve around food may reinforce emotional eating behaviors as a means of social connection or celebration. These external influences can further strengthen patterns of emotional eating.

Emotional eating has multifaceted root causes, including emotional triggers, learned behavior, stress, lack of emotional awareness, trauma, negative body image, and environmental influences. Identifying and understanding these underlying factors is essential in addressing emotional eating effectively. By recognizing the root causes, individuals can develop personalized strategies and seek support to break free from emotional eating patterns and establish a healthier relationship with food and their 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 and learn how emotional eating began for you.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

When did you first start eating your emotions? What triggered you? Why did you maintain this eating habit over the years? Let us know in the comments.

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Lisa Rice

When I was in my teens and my parents were controlling who I could or could not hang out with. I’m in my 60’s now and I don’t see any way to break this. I’ve tried a lot of things and emotional eating is just what I turn to when things are overwhelming me. Being mindful doesn’t help when you are a food addict – because I lie to myself all the time about what I’m eating. Someone once told me that being a food addict was a slow death because you have to eat. That’s a downer, eh?

Marion HOLT

Thank you for your comment Lisa. I am so sorry to read about your struggles. I agree that eating addiction is to be taken just as seriously as any other addiction, as it impacts our health in very serious ways. I do believe there are things we can do, though, to get it under control. You point out that you lie to yourself about what you eat. This is a form of denial that many people with addiction indeed use. One first step could be for you to become More aware of those lies when they occur. Maybe by writing them down when they pop in your head?


When I was young and my parents were having problems, my grandmother would say “eat something, you’ll feel better.” That was her answer to anything that happened to us, the dog died, our parents went on vacation and left us with her, candy bars to entertain us on a long trip. Of course she was skinny as a rail! I didn’t realize it until I saw her doing it to my kids. Of course I stopped it right away, but it took me years to get beyond this myself, it was so ingrained.

Marion HOLT

Thank you for your comment Linda, and congratulations for overcoming such a deeply ingrained coping mechanism in your family! I am sure your grandmother was not aware of the long term struggles her attitude would lead you to. We don’t always realize tje consequences of our actions, especially when they do bring some immediate emotional relief. Good job on not transmitting the coping mechanism to your kids, too!

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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