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What is "Emotional Eating"?

What is “emotional eating”? This is a non-scientific term in common use that refers to a particular kind of episode of over-eating or binge-eating that is experienced as occurring in response to emotional triggers.

When people come to see a clinical psychologist for help with binge eating, their eating patterns are often extremely erratic and irregular, and a significant number of episodes of binge eating may be driven by hunger. However, if binge eating remains a problem even when a regular eating pattern has been established, it is often the case that the binges are being triggered by external events or adverse moods rather than hunger. These are the kinds of episodes of eating sometimes referred to as “emotional eating”. For many people, proactive problem solving is sufficient to help them manage the events that trigger the changes in mood. However, there is a group of individuals who experience unusually intense moods, and who find these moods difficult to tolerate. Disordered eating appears to have a “mood-modulatory” effect for such people, perhaps by providing distraction, reducing awareness of, or in some way neutralising the moods. Binge-eating, vomiting and over-exercising are all behaviours that seem to help people who experience this kind of mood intolerance.

Emotional eating can be prompted by mood and emotion changes

Help for emotional eating


How does a clinical psychologist help people in this situation? Together, episodes of so-called “emotional eating” are analysed, and clients are assisted in identifying the event that first prompts the urge to eat, their thoughts about that prompting event, the mood changes that occur, and then the thoughts about those mood changes, such as “I can’t stand feeling upset like this!” which amplifies the mood, leading of course to further difficulties tolerating it.

Let’s look at an example. A young woman who struggles with disordered eating has an argument with her partner over his best friend coming to stay with them for a weekend. She interprets this as his not caring about her difficulties relating to this friend, and she becomes very upset and angry. She then has thoughts about her mood change such as “And now, look the evening is ruined - I didn’t want to get all upset today! I hate this!” She will as a result become even more distressed of course, and is at risk of turning to binge eating as a way of changing or reducing her unwanted mood state. Binge eating is reinforced if it occurs, because it is effective in reducing the intensity of the mood for this particular woman, and so she is more likely to binge again in similar circumstances.

The obvious down-side of using binge-eating in this way is that while it is effective at removing or reducing the unwanted mood or distress in the short term, binge eating has negative longer term consequences that people are often painfully aware of. These long term consequences include health and physical effects, low self-esteem, poor interpersonal relationships, lost opportunities to learn more adaptive self-management skills and so on.

As we have seen, the relief from unpleasant emotions that people may experience when they binge eat maintains the problem i.e. makes it more likely to happen again. Stepping out of this maintaining cycle requires that clients learn to slow down and analyse the situation as soon as a potential trigger occurs, and then learn to use alternate methods of mood modulation that work well in the short term and do not have the negative long-term consequences that binge eating does. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is particularly helpful in these situations – it offers a range of alternate skills to manage emotion and mood. I invite you to  review the article Treating Bulimia and binge eating with Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.

If you or someone close to you struggles with so-called “emotional eating”, please consider making an appointment, and together we can plan an appropriate treatment strategy.

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