How to stop emotionally eating

Learn what emotional eating is and how to overcome it.

Have you ever casually told somebody, “It’s been a crazy day; I need something sweet”? Have you come home late from work and eaten something entirely different from your dinner plan? Or maybe you have a ritual involving your favourite TV show, popcorn, ice cream, or salt & vinegar crisps?”

Feelings and eating are closely connected for virtually all of us. However, sometimes our emotions are not the byproduct of eating but the driving force behind it. In this article, you will learn about the definition and scientific background of this behaviour, called emotional eating, and what you can do to overcome emotional eating.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is when we eat as a response to experiencing negative emotions or stress (Arnow et al., 1994). Eating food when we feel bad – especially highly rewarding and satisfying foods, such as those high in fat or sugar – gives us temporary relief from the negative emotions we are experiencing.

We can identify whether emotional eating is happening by paying attention to the emotional context of our eating. Any situation that involves negative emotions could trigger somebody to eat emotionally. This is because we use two common strategies to deal with negative feelings – these strategies are also more common in people who emotionally eat (Spoor et al., 2007). The first strategy is that we are trying to cope with the emotion directly. The second is that we are avoiding the emotion altogether. In other words, we emotionally eat to head off a bad feeling coming down the road or deal with one already here.

Emotional eating is also more common in people who have trouble identifying and regulating their emotions and are highly susceptible to getting stressed out (van Strien, 2018). In addition, one study found gender differences in the likelihood of emotional eating: women were more likely to eat when stressed out. At the same time, men were more likely to eat when bored or anxious (Bennett et al., 2012).

However, emotional eating is not an official disorder in a medical volume such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the DSM). However, it functions similarly to “traditional” eating disorders such as binge eating (BED). Researchers have found that many people with BED are also emotional eaters, but not all. Moreover, the reverse is also true: most emotional eaters do not have a diagnosed eating disorder (Lindeman & Stark, 2001).

​While emotional eating is not a disorder, emotional eaters are likelier to be overweight or obese (Frayn & Knauper, 2017). They are also at greater risk of becoming someone who binge eats than are people who do not emotionally eat (Arnow et al., 1994; Ricca et al., 2009).

How to Stop Emotional Eating

The following are some science-based steps to reducing your emotional eating.

1)    Get in touch with your hunger signals. Some people may emotionally eat because they are not aware of the signals that their body is hungry (Tan & Chow, 2014). For example, some people may misinterpret their body’s reaction to stress as a signal that they need to eat. Alternatively, you may have difficulty noticing signs that you have eaten enough, making it harder to recognise emotional eating as unnecessary.  

2)    Get suspicious of your impulse to eat. First, a caveat: this is not a recommendation that you second-guess every thought about the food you have. However, it is clear that people who emotionally eat may not recognise the link between their emotional state and their urge to eat (Kemp & Kopp, 2011). So, my advice is simple: the next time you are hungry outside of mealtime, get curious: what else am I experiencing right now? Are there feelings I am having but not acknowledging? If I ate something, would that feeling go away?

3)    Minimise temptation. You have probably never heard anybody complain that they went overboard on mindlessly eating kale, have you? The foods that most of us crave when we emotionally eat are tempting for a good reason: they deliver a quick, powerful rush of satisfaction (Ganley, 1989). If you want to reduce the likelihood that you will eat emotionally, you may need to remove some of the chief suspects – your favourite snack foods – from your home, office, or even your car.

In Sum

All of us have likely engaged in emotional eating at some point. Food is so effective at changing our moods and so easy to access that it is almost inevitable. Thankfully, this is a behavioural pattern that we can recognise and change. Each time you catch yourself emotionally eating is an opportunity to learn something about yourself. What emotions are complex for you to handle? What other coping skills would you like to strengthen? With time and effort, you may see changes that go beyond your eating habits and your waistline.


  • ​Arnow, B., Kenardy, J., & Agras, W. S. (1994). The Emotional Eating Scale: the development of a measure to assess coping with negative affect by eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(1), 79-90.
  • Bennett, J., Greene, G., & Schwartz-Barcott, D. (2013). Perceptions of emotional eating behaviour: a qualitative study of college students. Appetite, pp. 60, 187–192.
  • Frayn, M., & Knauper, B. (2017). Emotional eating and weight in adults: a review. Current Psychology, pp. 37, 924–933.
  • Ganley, R. M. (1989). Emotion and eating in obesity: a review of the literature. International Journal of Eating Disorders, pp. 8, 343–361.
  • Kemp, E., & Kopp, S. W. (2011). Emotion regulation consumption: when feeling better is the aim. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 10(1), 1-7.
  • Lindeman, M., & Stark, K. (2001). Emotional eating and eating disorder psychopathology. Eating Disorders, 9, 251-259.
  • Ricca, V., Castellini, G., Lo Sauro, C., Ravaldi, C., Lapi, F., … , & Faravelli, C. (2009). Correlations between binge eating and emotional eating in a sample of overweight subjects. Appetite, 53(3), 418-421.
  • Spoor, S. T. P., Bekker, M. H. J., van Strien, T., & van Heck, G. L. (2007). Relations between negative affect, coping, and emotional eating. Appetite, 48(3), 368-376.
  • Tan, C. C., & Chow, C. M. (2014). Stress and emotional eating: the mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personality and Individual Differences, 66, 1-4.

Sharon Tomkins

Sharon is a New Zealand qualified Health Coach and Personal Trainer, as well as an ICF Certified Coach and Accredited Coaching Supervisor. Sharon was awarded the 'Health & Wellness Coach of the Year' 2022, by The Health Coaches Australia & New Zealand Association.
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