It's a truth universally acknowledged that emotional eating contributes to weight gain — but is this a false truth? Many patients come to my office with the "emotional eater" label firmly affixed, convinced that if they could solve that problem, all their food and weight woes would evaporate. That's rarely the case because emotional eating isn't about food.
The concept was born in the 1960s, the idea being that emotional eaters couldn't tell the difference between hunger and the physical sensations that accompany unpleasant emotions. Today, we often think of emotional eating as "feeding our feelings." But even though we think emotions drive us to overeat, research suggests that may be more perception than reality.
There are a number of emotional eating self-assessment scales that quiz you about how often you feel the urge to eat in response to emotions. The problem with self-assessment is that it's hard to accurately recall past emotions, past eating behavior, and whether there was a connection between the two. Your score may reveal more about how you think your eating is tied to your emotions than your eating behavior.
Calling yourself an emotional eater could reflect conflicted feelings about your food choices — whether the amount or the perceived healthfulness — even if your eating habits are not all that different from someone who doesn't identify as an emotional eater. Research suggests that people who are concerned about their eating behavior may retrospectively attribute overeating to emotions or stress, because emotional eating has become a commonly accepted explanation for food choices we judge as less-than-desirable.
As for those emotional eaters who actually overeat, they are also more likely to overeat when experiencing other food cues, including just being around food. Research does show that emotional eating is associated with higher body weights and more weight gain — but it's also associated with dieting. And that's no coincidence.
Dieting, or any restriction of amount or type of food, can lead to emotional eating due to physical and psychological deprivation, said New York-based dietitian Christy Harrison, host of the Food Psych podcast. Indeed, research shows that former and current dieters are more likely to describe themselves as emotional eaters, while those who have never dieted tend to avoid food when experiencing stress or strong emotions due to the appetite-squelching fight-or-flight response.
"Physical deprivation is when you don't eat enough and you're biologically hungry," Harrison said. "People can feel like they 'shouldn't' be feeling hungry because they ate 'enough' food according to the diet, so they blame themselves and label the eating they're doing 'emotional' — instead of blaming the diet for making them so physically deprived that they can't help but eat."
Psychological deprivation can happen when you've placed a certain food off-limits, making it "forbidden." Harrison said you can still feel deprived even after you're physically full and satisfied. "You end up eating that food and feeling overly full — and then label that type of eating as 'emotional' instead of recognizing that the rule forbidding you to eat that particular food is what caused the eating, and the solution is removing the restriction."
In a chicken-or-egg scenario, food restriction makes people more likely to overeat in response to emotional cues, but emotional eating can cause distress and guilt, potentially leading to dieting in an attempt for control. What comes first? That's difficult to say. Further muddying the situation is the fact that weight gain can cause feelings of failure, which may lead to the desire to soothe yourself with food.
There's no denying that emotional eating does offer temporary relief from uncomfortable feelings or no one would do it, and Harrison said that eating in response to emotions is normal some of the time. "What could be problematic is your relationship with food in general — are you restricting yourself and causing unnecessary distress when you end up eating things that you've deemed 'off-limits' or 'too much'? Are you bingeing regularly in a way that's hindering your life and causing you pain?"
Of course, psychological deprivation doesn't just stem from food restriction — it can come from restriction in other areas of your life, such as sleep, social connection, self-care or down time. This may sound odd, but some experts call emotional eating a gift, a clear signal that your needs aren't being met, that something needs to change.
Awareness of when you are eating to self-soothe is a first step to breaking unhelpful eating patterns, but curiosity is also key. Harrison encourages anyone who considers themselves an emotional eater to ask themselves what role dieting and deprivation might be playing. "If you recognize that you do restrict yourself from eating certain things and you feel deprived, consider that the deprivation might actually be at the root of what you think of as emotional eating — not emotions at all."
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.
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