Emotional eating. The name pretty much sums it up: eating in response to negative emotions like stress, anxiety, sadness, you name it. Anecdotally, it’s a pretty common occurrence. If you stood on a street corner surveying passers by, it’s likely that most would endorse occasionally raiding the cupboard for something sweet or salty (or both) after a taxing day at the office.
However, in the research world, there are two camps emerging when it comes to emotional eating. In a nutshell, some people think it’s a thing, and others think it’s not.
Having done a fair bit of research on the topic (see my 2017 article for a full review of the relationship between emotional eating and weight outcomes), I’ve seen a solid body of evidence to support the validity of emotional eating. When people look at the relationship between emotional eating and weight over time, not surprisingly, they tend to find that emotional eaters gain more weight than non-emotional eaters. Emotional eaters don’t just have the tendency to put on weight, they also experience greater difficulties taking it off. In the context of behavioural weight loss interventions (often referred to as RCTs or randomized controlled trials in research), emotional eaters also lose less weight than those who don’t engage in emotional eating. And it’s not an insignificant amount either. When looking at total weight loss in terms of the percentage of initial body weight lost, emotional eaters lose about 4 per cent less than non-emotional eaters. Given that 5 per cent weight loss is enough to deem it clinically significant, meaning that it helps to reduce the risk for other health concerns like diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic complications, 4 per cent is a pretty big number. With all of this in mind, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that emotional eating is not just a “thing” that people do from time to time, but rather a behaviour that has serious implications for long term health and well being.
So despite all of these findings, why do others argue against emotional eating? And what alternative explanation do they provide? Given that the body of literature on emotional eating is vast, the research done on overweight and obese individuals described above is only a subset of all of the studies done in this field. There is also a fairly comprehensive amount of research on normal weight individuals as well. In these studies, normal weight people (which in a standardized sense typically refers to those within a somewhat arbitrary BMI range of 18.5-24.9, although the merits of BMI for describing weight warrant their own article for another day), usually undergraduate university students, partake in laboratory studies looking at emotional eating. Typically, they undergo a mood induction, which involves watching a sad video, or listening to sad music, to put them in a negative mood, and then they are offered a variety of foods to choose from and their consumption is measured. Looking at these types of studies, the findings are mixed as to whether or not negative emotions actually lead to increased food intake.
It’s difficult to draw any solid conclusions because researchers in each camp have their arguments against the opposite side. One of the limitations to the normal weight studies is that they are all fairly contrived. Putting someone in a laboratory experiment and observing their behaviour is not necessarily indicative of what you would see in their day-to-day life. That being said, the question still remains as to why some normal weight individuals supposedly engage in emotional eating but still manage to maintain their weight. There are a couple of different theories on this.
One is that normal weight individuals essentially misattribute their overeating to their emotions. Because emotional eating is such a popular social construct, it’s easy to eat too much of something and then say, “Oh, I did that because I was super stressed out.” There is some evidence to show that when people overeat, they have the tendency to blame it on negative emotions after the fact as an easy out to account for why they ate more than they felt they should have.
Another theory is that normal emotional eaters are just better at self regulating than overweight and obese emotional eaters. They may engage in the exact same behaviour, but do it to a lesser extent and use other mechanisms to cope. For example, they may eat in response to negative emotions, but still stop when they are full, and also do regular exercise to maintain their lifestyle.
Realistically, emotional eating probably falls across a broad spectrum that encompasses all of these explanations. We can draw all of the over-arching conclusions we want, but at the end of the day, it looks drastically different from person to person. Is emotional eating a thing? Yes and no. The bigger question we need to be asking is: does it interfere with some people's health and well being? And if that answer is yes, which it quite certainly is, what are we going to do about it?
Frayn, M., & Knauper, B. (2016). Emotional eating and weight: A review. Current Psychology, advanced online publication, doi:10.1007/s12144-017-9577-9.
Koenders, P. G., & van Strien, T. (2011). Emotional eating, rather than lifestyle behavior, drives weight gain in a prospective study in 1562 employees. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53(11), 1287-1293.
Delahanty, L. M., Peyrot, M., & Shrader, P. J. (2013). Pre-treatment, psychological and behavioral predictors of weight outcomes among lifestyle intervention participants in the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP). Diabetes Care, 36(1), 34-40.
Frayn, M., Ivanova, E., Carriere, K., Knäuper, B., & the McGill CHIP Healthy Weight Program Investigators. (2017, June). Emotional eating and weight loss in the McGill CHIP Healthy Weight Study. Poster presented at the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity Annual Meeting, Victoria, British Columbia.
Werthmann, J., Renner, F., Roefs, A., Huibers, M. J. H., Plumanns, L., Krott, N., & Jansen, A. (2014). Looking at food in sad mood: Do attention biases lead emotional eaters into overeating after a negative MI? Eating Behaviors, 15, 230–236.
Adriaanse, M. A., Prinsen, S., de Witt Huberts, J. C., de Ridder, D. T., & Evers, C. (2016). 'I ate too much so I must have been sad': Emotions as a confabulated reason for overeating. Appetite, 103, 318-323.
Dohle, S., Hartmann, C., & Keller, C. (2014). Physical activity as a moderator of the association between emotional eating and BMI: Evidence from the Swiss Food Panel. Psychology & Health, 29, 1062-1080.
Tan, C. C., & Chow, C. M. (2014). Stress and emotional eating: The mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personality and Individual Differences, 66, 1-4.