March 19, 2020

Emotional Eating and Depression

For many people, food serves as a means to comfort themselves when they feel worried, anxious, bored, or depressed. The desire to eat without being really hungry has led to the emergence of the emotional eating disorder. In spite of the widespread occurrence of this problem, the majority of people still do not recognize the extent to which their emotions can influence eating habits. Being treated as something harmless, emotional eating can develop into a more serious disorder that is hard to control. Therefore, it is necessary to understand roots of this problem, connection between emotional eating and depression, and possible ways to overcome this disorder.The Concept of Emotional EatingEmotional eating can be defined as a serious health problem that requires special treatment. In general, this type of disorder makes a person impulsively consume food even without being hungry to overcome unpleasant feelings or to calm down. Nearly 40% of people usually eat more under stress, approximately 40% consume less food, and 20% do not feel any change in their appetite when being under stressful conditions. People who suffer from emotional eating often eat high-calorie or high-carbohydrate products that may not have any nutritional value. These products are often defined as comfort foods, which include ice-cream, chocolate, cookies, chips, pizza, and French fries. Comfort eating may be closely connected with depression since depressive symptoms often lead to changes in appetite and a greater tendency to “self-medication” by eating chocolate to feel better. However, it is hard to identify whether this phenomenon in depressed individuals is capable of diminishing negative emotions. Although people with more evident depressive symptoms may be more inclined to comfort eating, depression is also related to anhedonia, which can decrease any stress-buffering outcomes of the latter. This fact indicates that comfort eating cannot be treated as the best way to cope with stress in people with higher levels of depressive symptoms.Sometimes people associate certain products with pleasant memories from their childhood or a happy time in the past. As a result, eating that specific food brings them the feelings of achievement and safety. However, emotional eating can have a negative impact on person’s physical health and appearance, although its symptoms are not always obvious. Together with obesity, adverse effects include cholesterol, skin problems, vitamin deficiency, and even diabetes. Thus, this ostensibly harmless habit may result in a serious disorder with numerous consequences.Causes and Risk Factors of Emotional EatingSimilar to the majority of psychological disorders, emotional eating is considered to be a consequence of certain factors rather than a single reason. According to some investigations, women and girls are more inclined to suffer from eating disorders. On the other hand, other surveys specify that male members of some populations eat more as a reaction to anger and depression, while women usually start eating too much when they fail a diet. Therefore, practically everyone can suffer from emotional eating to a certain extent.It is suggested that emotional eating can be caused by a rise in the amount of cortisol in the human body. This hormone is produced as a response to stress, the symptoms of which include the increased heart rate and heavy breathing, visual acuity, and blood flow to muscles. In addition to this, stress provokes an increase in appetite due to the lack of energy in the organism, which leads to the desire to consume comfort foods. People who continuously experience chronic stress at school, work, or in the family are more inclined to have a high level of cortisol in their bodies. These factors can contribute to the development of chronic emotional eating disorders.From the psychological perspective, people who are prone to associate food with power, comfort, or any other feelings rather than supplying energy to their bodies are more inclined to emotional eating. They may consume food to fill the emotional gap, when they do not feel hungry, and become engaged in senseless eating. Some people connect food with a particular reward, punishment, or a substitute for emotional closeness. The continuous stimulation of this reward system causes the emergence of learned patterns of eating together with subsequent compulsive overeating. As a result, palatable products have a tendency to become addictive and to provoke a repeated cycle of eating disorders that seem to be psychologically and physiologically comforting.The Connection between Depression and Emotional EatingEmotional eating is closely connected with the symptoms of depression. About a half of people who suffer from the former have different signs of the latter. The majority of emotional eaters state that they consume large amounts of food in an extremely emotional or sad state, feeling an immediate remorse afterward. Depressed people often experience appetite changes and an extreme desire to consume unhealthy foods. The majority of persons, principally women, multiply the use of palatable products under stressful conditions in order to diminish certain physiologic signs of depression. Therefore, this eating disorder can be treated as a mental and physiologic coping mechanism.Depression cannot only affect person’s mood but also the general level of energy. Very often, people simply do not have enough energy to cook a healthy meal and find it more convenient to eat something like ice cream, cookies and chips instead. These products are always near at hand and are not expensive. If a person falls into depression because of some financial difficulties, he or she may be not able to afford healthy products. Moreover, to cook a healthy meal, one needs much concentration and time. However, a person in a depressed state may not be able to perform tasks like this. Thus, the one consumes ready-made food, which contains saturated fat, trans fats, salt and sugar. In spite of being quick and easy to prepare, these products are extremely harmful to the human health in case of their regular consumption. Foods with a considerable amount of fat, sugar and salt can cause serious health problems, including type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Therefore, emotional eating has become a real problem, which can potentially lead to many complications among those who do not pay attention to it.Ways to Overcome Emotional EatingTo overcome emotional eating, a patient should be taught to have a healthier attitude to food to change the former eating habits, recognize triggers that lead to this state, and to find proper solutions to prevent and reduce stress. First of all, it is important for the patient to be aware of his or her eating habits, emotions, and a possible way to cope with them. From this perspective, mindful eating is an effective approach to identify one’s habits and triggers. This practice makes people aware of their physical and emotional cues and non-hunger triggers of eating, as well as ways to satisfy their emotional needs different from eating.One of important measures to overcome stress is doing exercise. Regular physical activities lead to a decrease in stress chemicals production, which in turn results in a decline in depression, insomnia, anxiety, and an inclination to emotional eating. In addition, meditation and other relaxation procedures are also effective methods to cope with stress and to reduce emotional eating. Thus, one or two meditation sessions per day can have continuous positive effects on health by decreasing high blood pressure and heart rate. While alcohol and drugs usually increase body’s reaction to stress, it is important to refrain from using these substances. To eliminate stressful conditions, a person should change his or her lifestyle by taking breaks at work and at home. Taking regular days off and planning one’s life may also help to find the most effective way to solve emotional problems. However, some people may not be able to cope with their depression themselves and need help to deal with it. In this case, in the form of individual or group therapy, stress-management counseling can be very effective. Overall, one can always choose the most appropriate and effective way to deal with emotional problems.Emotional eating has become a matter of concern due to negative consequences it may have. Under the influence of stressful factors, anger, or anxiety, people try to comfort themselves by consuming excessive amounts of food. Such a strong desire to eat comfort foods can be explained by an excess of cortisol in the human organism. However, one of the primary factors that cause emotional eating is depression. After having identified the symptoms of this disorder, one should find an appropriate way to overcome this unpleasant physical and emotional state. Solutions vary from simple exercise to complicated psychological treatment. Overall, it is always possible to change the lifestyle and habits and to get rid of this disorder.

Kate Williamson, blogger and writer at