Many of us turn to food for comfort. But when does emotional eating become an issue?

How to determine and break emotional eating habits. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)
How to determine and break emotional eating habits. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

When Sam Thomas, a writer, speaker and mental health campaigner, was 11 years old, he experienced homophobic bullying at school. To escape the bullies, he would hide in the bathroom and eat the food in his lunchbox. “It was a sanctuary, as it was the only place I knew I wouldn’t be found,” he tells Yahoo Life.

This common and understandable behavior — emotional eating — was a source of comfort for him, and it didn’t end when he left school. Instability in his home life as a child and teen contributed to Thomas’s eating habits and difficult relationship with food. “It helped fill a void that felt like numbness or emptiness,” he explains.

He’s far from alone in that experience. In fact, about 75% of eating is emotionally driven, according to psychologist Susan Albers from the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center. But Thomas’s experience is reflective of a more significant issue when the quest to become emotionally satiated by food leads to a cycle of shame and guilt, while underlying anxiety or stress remains.

What is emotional eating?

In a nutshell, emotional eating is using food to soothe, numb or cope with (usually difficult) feelings. “The emotional connection that we have to food exists every time we eat, even when we’re eating primarily because we’re hungry,” Christine Byrne, a registered dietitian and the owner of Ruby Oak Nutrition in Raleigh, N.C., tells Yahoo Life. Emotional eating, however, isn’t motivated by hunger. Instead, it is “the act of using food to cope with various feelings you’re experiencing," she explains. Like turning to McDonald’s to soothe, distract or calm the mind and body after a stressful work day, rather than to feel satiated.

Emotional eating isn't defined as an eating disorder, according to Healthline. However, it is a pattern of disordered eating that is heavily tied to mental health.

According to Byrne, “it’s tough to say definitively what the signs of emotional eating are, since the same behavior can either be healthy or maladaptive depending on the intention behind it, the intensity of it and how often you engage in it.”

However, some signs of maladaptive (or disordered) eating she encourages folks to look out for include:

  • Frequently eating because of feelings (such as boredom, sadness, loneliness, stress, happiness) instead of hunger

  • When eating is the only way you know how to deal with uncomfortable feelings

  • Frequently eating until you're uncomfortably full as a way to numb or escape feelings

Why does emotional eating happen?

The connection between food and emotions has been evidenced through culture and science. “As humans, one way we connect and soothe from infancy is through food,” Rachel Heinemann, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, tells Yahoo Life. “We build community over joint meals, we comfort those who are grieving with food and we welcome new neighbors with food.”

A study in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science also helps to explain the phenomenon of emotional eating, as it points out that sweet, high-calorie foods are often what people crave when experiencing a spike in cortisol from stress. These foods are linked to the release of serotonin, which can boost mood.

Thomas’s go-to foods when he was feeling depressed, for example, were cookies and chips (although he says he’d eat anything he could find in an effort to relieve emotional discomfort). This habit was also informed by past experiences of his mother rewarding and comforting him with sweets. “I associated certain foods with a whole range of emotions,” he says.

Childhood experiences, like being rewarded with sweets, are a notable cause of emotional eating. Other contributors include social influences, boredom, suppressed emotions and stress. Existing body image issues and restrictive dieting are also risk factors, as any one of these can be an emotional trigger that leads to a specific food craving. It's not inherently a bad thing; however, feeding those feelings doesn't always bring the intended result or relief.

In Thomas's experience, food would provide him a kind of high while eating, to eventually experience what he refers to as a "come down" after the fact, in which the difficult feelings return. This is then paired with the discomfort that can come from mindless eating or eating beyond fullness. Breona O’Brien, a licensed mental health counselor with Mindoula, says that that aftermath can perpetuate a negative cycle with body image as well.

"This overeating can lead to weight gain and a feeling of a loss of control. These two things then lead to more negative thoughts about their bodies and can lead to more emotional eating," she tells Yahoo Life.

When determining events and triggers that lead to emotional eating, it's important to address the frequency in which it happens. "Frequent emotional eating can be an indication that there is something going on in your life, family, job [or] living environment that is making you distressed," says O'Brien, "and no one deserves to live in a constant state of discomfort."

Addressing the root issues

Mindfulness is key to addressing emotional eating and its causes, according to O’Brien. She says it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the messages that our bodies and brains are sending us when it comes to food. This would allow an individual to come to understand if they’re reaching for food because they’re actually hungry or if there’s an emotional reaction at play.

Mount Sinai offers a guide that suggests observing eating patterns and how they relate to certain feelings, situations or places; as well as working on developing new coping skills to handle those moments. This might include reading a book, talking to friends or going for a walk, for example, rather than heading to the pantry.

This isn’t to say that people should emotionally detach from food, or that all emotional eating is inherently a bad thing. (In fact, Heinemann emphasizes that food is meant to be a way for people to “connect, soothe and enjoy.”) These interventions, however, may be more helpful — or are at least other options you can turn to.

Other helpful tactics include eating slowly, planning ahead so that you’re not in a situation that feels urgent and working with a professional to avoid further discomfort, body image issues and the threat of an eating disorder.

Seeking therapy is ultimately what helped Thomas. "Having had trauma therapy, I realized my addictions had been with me since a very young age," he says. "Therapy sessions enabled me to recognize the pattern [of my emotional eating] and find ways to break it."

Thomas has found that activities such as going to the gym and writing in a journal also help him meet his emotional needs. To say that he hasn't turned to food for comfort since wouldn't be accurate. However, he has "a much healthier relationship with food" after ridding himself of guilt and shame surrounding it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder please visit the National Eating Disorders (NEDA) website at for more information.