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Why We Engage in Emotional Eating

How to stop eating emotionally? Emotional eating (sometimes called stress eating or comfort eating) is difficult to control partly because we have no control over its biological determinants (e.g., genes). But what if other factors, ones that are easier to modify, were of greater importance to emotional eating? These other determinants—according to an article in the November 2018 issue of Appetite—are psychological and situational: Restrained eating and stress level.1

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating refers to consumption of food for the purpose of regulating one’s emotional states. Eating palatable foods—commonly, foods that are sweet, fatty, or high in carbs—may improve our mood temporarily, but that short-lived comfort comes at the cost of weight gain and other health issues. Stress is only one potential cause of emotional eating. Below I briefly describe three classes of determinants of emotional eating. I then review the present research study.

1. Situational determinants of emotional eating

Situational determinants are current circumstances and situational factors that influence eating behaviors. Two common situational factors are hunger and stress. As noted above, when people are under a lot of stress—be it related to school, work, or relationship problems—they are more prone to stress eating. Why? Perhaps because they associate feelings of stress with sensations of hunger.

In addition, emotional eating is associated with sensations of hunger; these sensations are influenced by both normal hunger (i.e. energy deficiency) and hedonic hunger (i.e. urges, feelings, and thoughts about food).

2. Psychological determinants of emotional eating

Psychological determinants are personality-related factors related to motivation and self-regulation.

Restrained eating

Restrained eating refers to restriction and monitoring of what one eats. Restrained eaters think about food constantly, which may be why they are more likely to eat emotionally when feeling unhappy or stressed.


Impulsiveness is the tendency to act without thinking: Impulsive individuals do not consider the unhealthy consequences of their unhealthy food consumption behavior.

Reward sensitivity

Reward sensitivity is the degree to which one is responsive toward rewards of a behavior. For instance, some people are more responsive to the mood-lifting properties of junk food or comfort food.

Cognitive reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal is related to how one cognitively evaluates an emotion-eliciting situation. Emotional eaters are less likely to use cognitive reappraisal. For instance, a stress eater can only look back at an unsuccessful interview as a humiliating failure; not as a valuable lesson or even an interesting adventure.

3. Biological determinants of emotional eating

One biological factor associated with eating emotionally is weight status. Compared to normal-weight people, overweight individuals are more likely to overeat after experiencing unpleasant feelings. The reasons for this are not clear, although some research indicates being overweight is associated with a greater sensitivity to emotions.

Another determinant is biological sex. Compared to men, women—partly due to their biological dispositions (e.g., hormonal changes)—are more prone to experiencing intense feelings. That might be why women are more likely than men to use eating as a way to regulate their mood.

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