Are You An Emotional Eater?


We often joke about drowning our woes with a pint of ice cream or indulging in chocolate after a particularly stressful day. It sounds innocent, but emotional eating is actually a real problem for many people that often tips into an addiction. Research actually shows that emotional eating stimulates the same sections of the brain that are involved with drug and alcohol use.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychology showed that women with a propensity toward food addiction reacted more strongly to a chocolate milkshake, as shown by an fMRI brain scan, than to a glass of water. According to the scan, the subjects reacted more strongly to a photograph of a milkshake than to actually drinking one. The study’s lead author, Ashley N. Gearhardt, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Yale University’s Rudd Center in New Haven, speculated that it was because “the brain just gets flooded all the time, which shuts down some of reward reactors. You may think it’s going to be the best thing you ever tasted but it doesn’t meet expectations. That’s maybe why they eat more.”

It doesn’t take a brain scan to determine whether you’re an emotional eater. If you turned to food for comfort after break-ups, bad days on the job, or other stressful events, that may mean you’re using food too often too soothe stress, according to

According to Dr. Susan Albers, a Cleveland Clinic Hospital psychologist, these additional signs might indicate that you have an emotional eating problem:

  • Cravings triggered by other feelings besides stress. These might include boredom or general anxiety
  • Eating when you’re not really hungry. This includes eating shortly after meals or at times when you don’t actually feel physical hunger cues from your body.
  • Eating in a mindless way. This often links into the previous trait and could occur when you’re doing something like watching TV and popping potato chips or another snack into your mouth without really tasting or enjoying the food.
  • Having trouble finding a food that fulfills you. This often leads to eating whatever you can find around the house because you just don’t feel satisfied. You might even eat things that you don’t really like in your futile quest.

Because emotional eating is often linked to self-soothing or seeking comfort, awareness helps you stop it. Catch yourself when you eat mindlessly and replace the behavior with something else. Go for a walk, write in a journal, or do another constructive and calorie-free activity. If you need to put something in your mouth, opt for some water or a cup of tea without sweetener. Choose an herbal variety if you’d like some taste without any calories.

If you think you might suffer from a serious eating disorder that goes beyond simple emotional eating, check out this page that discusses the most common disorders, such as binge eating, bulimia, or anorexia nervosa. You may need to work with a therapist or other professional if you suffer from one of those disorders. If you think your emotional eating might qualify as an addiction. Overeaters Anonymous offers a 12-step program based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.