Is the Incentive for Emotional Eating the Same as for Binge Eating?

Young hungry woman in front of refrigerator looking longingly at chocolate pastries.

Emotional eating refers to using food to make yourself feel better – to fill your stomach rather than filling emotional needs. (Image: Stokkete via Dreamstime)

Finding comfort in food is quite common these days, and it is called emotional eating. Emotional eating refers to using food to make yourself feel better — i.e., filling your stomach rather than filling your emotional needs.

People can often feel hungry if their diet lacks protein, fiber, or fat, which all promote a feeling of fullness and satiety. All reduce appetite. Extreme hunger can be linked to inadequate sleep and chronic stress. Emotional eating is responding to feelings by eating high-carbohydrate and high-calorie foods, as well as sweet treats. Emotional eating results from several factors rather than a single cause.

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In July 2020, the New York Post published the article A lot of Americans are eating comfort food daily to cope with stress. A study asked around 2,000 Americans about their eating habits during their time in lockdown. Thirty-eight percent of participants admitted eating comfort food every day while spending time at home. Six in 10 participants also shared that their comfort foods were ice cream, chocolates, and sweets.

Comfort foods provide a temporary sense of euphoria, making a person feel good. Foods high in sugars, fat, or salt elevate your mood by stimulating your brain’s reward system. According to Psychology Today, the same reward and pleasure centers associated with drug addiction are active when eating comfort foods.

Burger, sweets, chips, chocolate, donuts, and soda against a dark background.
Foods high in sugars, fat, or salt elevate your mood by stimulating your brain’s reward system. (Image: Nina Firsova via Dreamstime)

When you eat to satisfy an emotional need, the relief it may provide is often temporary. From a psychological standpoint, stress causes your adrenal glands to release cortisol. When this happens, you may notice an increase in appetite and a desire to eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods.

Emotional eating is often confused with binge eating

Emotional eating is often confused with “binge eating.” The primary difference between the pair involves the amount of food consumed. However, both involve a sense of trouble controlling cravings for food.

Warning signs for emotional eating include:

  • Intense and sudden feelings of hunger.
  • Cravings for junk food.
  • Feelings of guilt once eating.

While emotional eating can be a symptom of atypical depression, many people do not have clinical depression or any other mental health issue for that matter. Nevertheless, emotional eating is prevalent but interferes with maintaining a healthy and well-balanced diet.

Overcoming emotional eating involves teaching sufferers healthier ways to view food and developing better eating habits. In addition, work with sufferers to learn to recognize triggers and find better coping strategies, such as exercise.

Learn to recognize triggers and find better coping strategies than emotional eating, such as exercise.
Learn to recognize triggers and find better coping strategies, such as exercise. (Image: Eldar Nurkovic via Dreamstime)

An essential part of managing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight, is to exercise. Regular physical activities keep stress chemicals at bay and decrease depression, anxiety, and insomnia. These, in turn, reduce tendencies to engage in emotional eating.

In December 2020, Healthline published, “How Can I Improve My Relationship With Food?” A good relationship with food has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your diet or the types of food you eat, but rather how and why you choose the food you eat.

When you improve your relationship with food, you’ll notice a lot less stress and worry about eating. A good relationship with food is to have more positive experiences with food than negative ones. Showing patience and kindness towards yourself is paramount.

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