Feeding Our Feelings: Understanding Emotional Overeating

Your personality, genetics, and personal history all have an impact on your relationship with food. One way that disordered eating develops is through emotional eating. When we use food to bury or avoid thinking about our emotions, we lose touch with physical hunger while we feed our feelings instead.

Let’s delve into the emotional triggers that can stand in the way of healthy eating and explore why certain personality types are more likely to develop this behavior.


girl happy to see treats


What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating involves using food as a response to a wide variety of emotions. Through learned behavior or past conditioning, we learn to celebrate victories and soothe sorrows with calorie-rich treats. There exists both a chemical brain response which is inherently rewarding and a family tradition or personal habit of turning to food when experiencing emotion.

The type of person who might fall into this emotional relationship with food:

  • Is an empathetic individual who experiences emotions strongly.
  • Feels the responsibilities of life weighing heavily on their shoulders.
  • Responds by working harder and offering more to others, even when they may already feel overwhelmed.

Food provides a relief from these feelings, an energy boost, and something to focus on when an emotional break is needed. As the habit becomes firmly established, turning to food as an avoidance is automatic, and celebrating without rich treats seems unthinkable.


What Causes Emotional Eating?

Focusing on thoughts of food or the experience of eating allows us to manage our mood and avoid uncomfortable feelings. The motivating factors that fuel this behavior include: 

  • Avoidance. Thinking about food, planning a food celebration, or the act of eating itself allows us to shift from one mood to another or avoid awkward situations. These activities function as a defense against strong feelings and an escape from social anxiety.
  • Burying negative feelings. Thoughts of food and the sensual experience of eating disconnect us from negative thoughts. The chemical processes of digestion and the increased levels of serotonin and endorphins triggered in the brain temporarily relieve depression. 
  • Lessons learned in childhood. We learn in early childhood that food is the answer to every emotion. We might be given ice cream for both a stellar report card and because we were knocked down on the playground. We learn an early lesson that all intense feelings—and even boredom—should be resolved with food.


emotional man with ice cream cone


What Are the Symptoms of Emotional Eating?

A full dietary assessment may be needed to understand if emotional eating is the primary cause of a dysfunctional relationship with food, but these signs may indicate that overeating has an emotional basis:

  • Feeling physically full but not satisfied until you are physically uncomfortable.
  • Experiencing hunger as a mental state rather than a pang in the belly.
  • Suddenly craving sweet treats or high carbohydrate meals when faced with uncomfortable feelings or excitement.
  • Frequently eating as a reward for yourself or your family.
  • Eating to calm yourself, to cheer yourself up, or to avoid thinking about your emotions.


Is Emotional Overeating the Issue?

We all have a unique relationship with food. If the definition of emotional eating describes your triggers, you can confirm your DietQ type with our quiz. The results will enlighten you about your own eating style and boost your ability to eat intentionally.

There are many types of disordered eating, each with its own recommendations for diet success. Learn about your own individual challenges and use your quiz results to create a winning strategy today!