What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is using food to make us feel better, and it’s actually very normal! It’s been part of the human experience since time immemorial to congregate around meals and to celebrate (and commiserate) using food.


Food helps to regulate emotional states – and this association starts as soon as we’re born. Crying babies are soothed with milk. If a toddler falls over and scrapes their knee, they are often offered food (usually something sweet) to distract them and make them feel better. Kids are often rewarded with foods – sweets/chocolates are called “treats” – and you might “earn” them with good behaviour. Families and communities congregate around mealtimes – celebrations and festivals across all cultures usually involve food.

Food is a way of expressing and sharing love (or withholding it). Food is evocative of memories and experiences from our childhood. The association between food and comfort/ soothing quickly becomes ingrained in our psyche and stays with us throughout life.

Therefore, it’s quite normal when, as adults, we use food to help us feel better – it’s that self-help technique we learned as babies. We may not be consciously doing it – but if we’re tired, stressed, angry, upset, sad… or even happy, euphoric, and looking to celebrate, we will look to food. If we’ve had a hard day or week, we might look to “treat” ourselves with a takeaway or a “blowout” meal as a reward – we’ve earned it, after all – it’s what we learned when we were kids.

It’s not just a psychological or emotional association – there is a physiological pathway as well. Sugary foods stimulate the production of serotonin – the “good mood” hormone – so they do give us an immediate boost in our emotional state. They also trigger the release of dopamine – a brain chemical which makes us feel good and signals that an event was positive – wiring the brain’s reward system, and reinforcing the behaviour that eating sugar and processed foods makes us feel good.

And that’s the issue. It’s not broccoli we tend to crave when we’re stressed – it will be chocolate, crisps, or other highly processed, high sugar, high-processed fat items.

If it’s an occasional occurrence, and it’s not negatively affecting our lives, then that’s OK. But what if this becomes our main way of regulating our emotions? What if every time we are angry, stressed, tired, or bored, our default reaction is to turn to food to soothe us? That’s when emotional eating does become a problem. The “soothing” that these foods give us is only temporary. The problem is not actually solved. The emotion does not actually go away. We usually end up feeling even worse, as the original emotion usually becomes compounded with guilt and negative thinking – “I shouldn’t have done that”, “I’m so weak”, “I’m useless”. This will trigger the emotional eating behaviour again – and it becomes a vicious cycle.

How do we break emotional eating cycles?

The first step is always awareness. These behaviours are often so ingrained in our psyche, that they are subconscious – we will do them automatically, without thinking. There are techniques we can use to help us become aware of what we are doing – mindfulness is a great one, and mindful eating. Even if we don’t actually change what we’re doing, but just bring some awareness to it, that’s progress.

The next step would be to introduce a gap – a space – between being triggered and responding through food. We would then try to elongate that gap – so we are giving ourselves the chance to control our response. This gap is like a muscle we need to build up – it’s like holding a plank position – at first, we may only be able to hold it for a few seconds, then over time, it might be one minute, then five minutes, then longer. It takes time, repetition and perseverance, but the muscle will get stronger.

Alongside this, we need to give ourselves other ways to try and deal with the underlying emotion. Can we recognise it? Can we name it? And what else could we do to soothe it?

The role of nutritional support 

Nutritional support throughout this process is really important, and underpins our ability to change our behaviours. That’s because of the physiological factors we discussed. The more of these foods we eat, the more we crave them because they disrupt our hormones. And again it’s a vicious cycle because food affects our mood – through the gut-brain axis. So if we’re eating lots of high-sugar, highly processed foods, this will negatively affect our mood.

Trying to introduce regular eating patterns, nourishing our body with positive food choices, and ensuring we are getting the macro and micronutrients we need will help to support and regulate our hormones, blood glucose levels, and mood – and help us to better support ourselves and our emotions.

If you’d like to work with me on improving your eating patterns, please get in touch to book a free discovery call, in which we can discuss your concerns and how I can help!


There is a difference between emotional eating and binge eating, which can be an eating disorder. Binge eating has two primary characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of overeating. First off, the person consumes what is deemed an “unusually large” amount of food within a two-hour period. Second, during this eating episode, the individual experiences a perceived loss of control over their eating – in other words, feeling like they cannot stop, even if they want to.

Importantly, binge eating goes from being a behaviour to being a disorder if the person is distressed by what they are doing. It also must occur at least once a week for three months. Diagnoses can only be given by psychologists, psychiatrists, and sometimes GPs, upon formal clinical assessment.

More information and resources

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stanmore HA7 & Watford WD19
Written by Orley Kutner, Nutrition Registered Nutritional Therapist DipNT mBANT mCNHC
Stanmore HA7 & Watford WD19

I am a fully qualified and registered Nutritional Therapist, specialising in blood glucose regulation and weight management. Online or in-person consultations. I give talks and presentations to companies, community & charity groups. I deliver the NHS NDPP for reversing prediabetes.

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