7 Ways Emotions Influence Eating

There is so much more to eating than food.

Sounds weird, right? But think about it. What you eat is influenced by where you are, time of day, what you’re doing, whether you’re alone or with company, how your body is feeling, and your emotions. There is so much to explore about each of these factors, but let’s just focus on this last one – emotions.

Because emotions can influence what we eat, the amount we eat, and how we eat.

Eating can be one way to hide from or stuff down emotions we don’t want to feel. It can be an activity we do without purpose because we’re distracted. It can be a behavior triggered by stress or something we do as a reward. There are lots of ways our emotions can cause us to overeat. Here are 7:

1. You’re overwhelmed by sadness or shame

Down and out? Let’s grab something to eat. Sad about that breakup? I’ve got some ice cream! Had a bad day at work today? Here, have a drink.

When we’re feeling sad or shameful it’s normal to want to numb or escape the pain. Food can help serve this purpose, specifically foods of the high-carb, sugary and fatty variety, as they set off a chemical chain reaction that ends with the release of that feel-good chemical, serotonin. The food tastes good but it’s more than that; it’s a distractor that gives our brain a temporary pick-me-up. The irony is that this can backfire, causing guilt at all the extra calories ingested and the lack of control we have over not only over our emotions but our food intake as well.

2. Boredom sets in and what else is there to do but eat?

This one is an all too familiar scenario for most of us. We have nothing to do, perhaps we’re sitting in front of the television, and we reach for a bag of chips or a box of cookies. A few mindless minutes later, it’s gone. What the heck just happened?

When we’re bored, we’re not appreciating what is going on around us in the present moment. We put our body on autopilot and tune out of the food we’re reaching for and consuming. So we lose both ways – first in that we don’t appreciate the food we’re eating and second because we usually end up over-eating and feeling upset with ourselves as a result.

3. Our brain is on fire – with stress, anxiety, or anger

In our overcharged, hyperlinked, multitasking society, stress is the new normal. And most of us are desperately searching for ways to alleviate it. Whether it’s sugar, salt, or a feel-good fatty meal, we may be hoping to find that holy grail of calm through food.

If we’re suffering from chronic stress, the associated elevations in cortisol might be underlying our cravings for fat- and sugar-filled foods. And then comes the calming feedback mechanism – since sugar- and fat-filled foods inhibit activity in the part of the brain that produces stress. So the end result is that we feel less stressed out after hitting that candy jar. But like most good things in life, it won’t last and the stress will return.

4. We want to return to a prior time or event

Ask anyone to think back to a joyous event and they’ll wistfully recount a time when they were surrounded by friends and family, laughing and connecting, experiencing life in the moment. These are our “sticky” experiences, and with them come the input from our senses – including the smell and taste of foods we were eating at the time. Whether we realize it or not, we may be drawn to eating foods as a way to reconnect with positive memories of loved ones and past events just when we most need to do so.

5. You’re feeling good…..

You kicked that presentation out of the park, got that promotion, or just finally got rid of that toxic relationship that’s been bringing you down. You deserve a reward, right?

While there is nothing wrong with celebratory eating (and it is often just what we need), if you reward yourself too often with unhealthy foods, then it can become a problem. So next time you’re feeling good, be cautious about hitting that treat drawer.

6. Food as a friend or security

Food can evoke feelings of safety, much like a security blanket. It can be just what we need when we’re feeling alone or insecure.

But food will never fill the emptiness of being lonely and it can’t protect against the harmful pains caused by a sometimes cruel outside world.

7. We’re scared……

At the core of it, a lot of us are scared. We have to navigate unsafe communities, problematic relationships, confusing work prospects, and internal struggles, all while being bombarded on a daily basis with multiple accounts of tragedy, illness, mishaps, and death.

Studies have shown that fear can precipitate eating; and interestingly enough, a recent study showed that even the threat of other emotions may prompt us to overeat.

So what do we do about this?

While there is still so much to known about how our emotions influence food choices and eating behavior, a first step is to start tuning into your own eating patterns. Then the work can be done to learn how to prevent unhealthy choices, remain mindful of the food you’re eating and work to choose foods that promote health and well-being.

Do emotions cause you to overeat? Reach out and tell me your experience or if you need help breaking the emotional eating cycle.

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