March 18, 2022

Are you an emotional eater? If so, you aren't alone. Many people use emotional eating as a way to cope with their feelings, both good and bad. However, doing so can create health issues and worsen chronic conditions. We reached out to two dieticians from Winchester Hospital to discuss emotional eating triggers and how you can drop the habit for good.

What is emotional eating?

Mariale Renna, MS, RD, LDN (MR): Emotional eating is any type of eating that is not done to satisfy physical hunger.

Helen Long, MA, RD, LDN, CDE (HL): Emotional eating is eating to soothe ourselves in response to emotional events or stress.

What might trigger emotional eating?

MR: While emotional eating is often associated with sad events, happy feelings can also trigger emotional eating (think holidays or celebrations).

HL: Many individuals respond to stress by reaching for foods rich in carbohydrates (breads, pasta, sweets), which raise tryptophan levels which in turn produce serotonin and result in a calmer, more relaxed mood. It's no wonder we don't reach for chicken when we'e having a bad day!

What makes emotional eating harmful?

MR: Emotional eating leads to mindless eating, which is "overeating because of family and friends, packages and plates...distractions and distances, cupboards and containers," stated Brian Wansink, professor and researcher at Cornell University and author of the book Mindless Eating.

HL: Mindless eating can lead to poor food choices, which can lead to weight gain or derail efforts made to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

How can I put an end to my emotional eating habit?

MR: Active distractions, such as playing a game or going for a walk, are effective in preventing or reducing stress eating. Pre-portioning out favorite foods or having healthy snacks on hand can stop a splurge right in its tracks!

HL: Being mindful of your feelings when you begin to stress eat will allow you to find soothing alternatives to calm yourself and make more healthful choices.

What are the benefits of overcoming emotional eating?

HL: You will feel better as you are more in control of your eating behaviors and food choices!

MR: New techniques to deal with stress can be helpful to manage stress in the future.

If you struggle with emotional eating, speak to your primary care doctor or seek out a dietician.