The Truth About Emotional Eating

March 16, 2021

Losing yourself in a pint of ice cream after a frustrating audition. Stress baking during the COVID-19 lockdown. Most of us have experience with “emotional eating,” using food to process or distract from stress.

There are scientific reasons why we turn to food for emotional support, says Marie Scioscia, a registered dietitian who works with The Ailey School. From a young age, babies learn to cry out when they need milk, and even as adults, we seek nourishment when we’re in distress. “We tend to go towards wanting that feeling again,” she says. “Usually it’s protection or someone looking after us.”

When you need to bring positivity into your life, you might return to feel-good foods you have an emotional connection to. It’s not just the taste that’s soothing, explains Melissa Majumdar, a registered dieti­tian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s the anticipation of the food, or the memories that have been associated with the food.”

It’s a myth that using food to self-soothe is inherently bad for you. If we didn’t have cravings or desire certain nutrients, we wouldn’t survive, says Val Schonberg, a registered dietitian and specialist in sports nutrition who works with dancers.

That said, emotional eating can become problematic if it’s used in place of other coping mechanisms, if it becomes a pattern, or if it’s accompanied by negative thoughts or guilt, Majumdar says. Eating is just one stress-busting strategy, and it only provides temporary relief. While downing a bag of M&M’s might momentarily take your mind off of stage fright, it won’t make you more confident and prepared performing.

“The comfort that food gives us in a situation when we feel distressed is very short-lived,” says Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of To The Pointe Nutrition. “It’s not actually solving the root cause.” Here are three ways to use food to self-soothe in a healthier way.

Scrap Your Food Rules

“Deprivation often backfires,” Schonberg says. When we restrict foods, it only makes us desire them more. “Then, when you do choose to have, say, a brownie, you end up eating the whole pan instead of being able to mindfully enjoy and truly savor one,” she says.

Afterwards, you might feel guilt or shame for breaking your “rules,” which only increases anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms, Scioscia says. This can create a harmful pattern: Restriction leads to overeating, followed by negativity.

It takes work to reset and learn how to respond to negative thoughts about certain foods, but it’s worth it in the long run, Fine says. (This is actually a key principle in intuitive eating, a research-backed self-care eating framework used by dietitians.) “That thought of ‘I can’t control myself around foods’ is the very thing that is fueling the lack of control,” she says.

Build Comfort Foods Into Your Diet

Embrace your favorite foods, Schonberg says. For example, if you’re packing a lunch, include a dessert or treat, and plan to eat it with your meal. “That way you’re giving yourself permission to have it,” rather than waiting until you’re at a breaking point, she says. “It helps that mental piece of ‘Oh, I can have and enjoy this cookie, but I also filled up on all this nutritious food, too.’ ” Feeling out of control around your comfort foods can be a red flag that you’re not meeting your nutritional needs elsewhere, Majumdar adds.

Try These Mood-Boosting Foods

Research has shown that certain nutrients can have a positive effect on your mood, says Scioscia.

  • Carbohydrates:
    Beloved carbs stimulate the brain to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, well-being and sleep.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids:
    Fatty fish (like salmon), walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds are smart sources of this polyunsaturated fatty acid that’s shown to ease anxiety symptoms.
  • Magnesium:
    Snacking on pumpkin seeds, almonds and cashews is a great way to get this mineral, which can stabilize your blood pressure and help the part of your brain that responds to stress.
  • Fermented foods:
    There’s a strong link between your gut health and your brain health. Eating fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi and yogurt can help balance the bacteria in your gut, and potentially reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Vitamin C:
    Research suggests that vitamin C can lower anxiety levels and improve people’s moods. Besides citrus fruits, you can get it from kiwifruit, bell peppers, potatoes (just leave the skin on) and even brussels sprouts.

Pay Attention to Your Thoughts

Think about what foods you’re really craving before you dive into your fridge. If you’re hankering for ice cream, honor that. “Slow things down so you can make decisions about what you want,” Scioscia says. Savor the taste and texture, pause as you eat to check in with your hunger cues, and stop when you feel satisfied.

How you feel after eating is just as important as the emotions that brought you there in the first place, so take note of your mental state, Majumdar suggests. Ask yourself: Do you feel a little bit more relaxed? Did you enjoy the food? Remember: You may need to dig deeper with a mental health professional to get to the source of your stress.