Is Emotional Eating Really That Bad? Why Some People Can Get Away With Eating Their Feelings

One second, there’s a full bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream in front of you. The next, it’s gone — along with another, plus a few cookies and a double serving of shame.

We’ve all done it — eaten more addictive foods than we know we should have because we felt sad or lonely or angry at the world.

Health experts call this ice cream-induced regret emotional eating. People who “eat their feelings” often use food as a coping mechanism for life’s daily stressors.

man eating out of refrigerator

A man eats out of the refrigerator. | LuckyBusiness/iStock/Getty Images

Registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with this practice. In fact, she believes trying to stop emotional eating could make things worse.

She pointed out in her US News article: “If anytime you eat for reasons other than physical hunger you end upĀ feeling guilty and ashamed, isn’t that worse for your body than the eating itself? Shame creates a stress response and causes physical side effects that can affect your digestion and sleep, increase inflammation, lead to infections and more.”

And science backs up her argument. Chronic stress promotes digestive and immunity issues because your body can’t tell the difference between life-threatening stressors and the anxiety you feel after eating one too many cupcakes.

We experience stress because we need some kind of signal to let us know something’s happening and we need to pay attention. Experts call this the fight-or-flight response. Think of it this way: Everything you wouldn’t theoretically need to run away from an angry bear temporarily slows down, while everything else — your breathing, heart rate, and more — speeds up.

Obviously, escaping the jaws of a bear and dealing with a breakup don’t exhibit the same level of urgency. But your brain doesn’t know that. It senses danger and sends you straight into panic mode.

What does all this have to do with eating? It’s all in the hormones — stress hormones, that is.

The “stress chemical” cortisol floods your system when you’re in emotional distress, for example. This causes a spike in a different hormone, insulin. And this spike leads to a drop in your blood sugar, which is why you crave so many high-sugar, high-fat foods when your feelings get the best of you.

As Rumsey argued, this isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, you just need to finish that pint of ice cream, dry your tears, and move on with your life.

A woman eats emotionally.

A woman eats emotionally. | YakobchukOlena/iStock/Getty Images

But some people can’t just move on. Their constant stress traps them in a cycle of unhealthy eating habits that make them sick. And for them, emotional eating is destructive and dangerous.

Emotional eating, if uncontrolled, can cause a number of weight-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and more. The mental health consequences can trigger symptoms of anxiety or depression, or worsen symptoms in people already living with these issues.

Why can some people control their stress-eating habits, while others can’t?

It depends on a number of factors, both biological and environmental. You feel stressed or upset or even happy, so you eat. It’s your body responding to the hormones inside you that seem to be saying, “You’re hungry! Eat all the ice cream!”

People who experience other unhealthy coping behaviors — such as drug or alcohol abuse — might also turn to food to help them deal.

Some research even suggests many children experience emotional eating because their parents taught them the behavior was OK. When you give your kid a cookie every time she cries, she might grow up repeating that behavior — and teach it to her own children someday.

Some people have developed healthier coping strategies without realizing it. Others have tried, but haven’t found something that works for them yet.

The good news is, you can break your cycle of emotional eating, regardless of where it may have come from.

Rumsey suggests people who recognize they’re using food to numb their feelings should train themselves to savor — not devour — their comfort foods.

“Make eating an active choice. Think about what food will make you feel better at that moment,” she wrote. “Use all your senses to smell, taste and savor that food. This will help you use food and the act of eating in a positive way to feel better, without a side of guilt.”

We’re all going to go through days that drive us to eat large quantities of less-than-ideal foods to make it through. If it happens uncharacteristically, let it happen: Savor the flavor and put the calories behind you.

But if you can’t get through a single day without taking things too far, it’s OK to reach out for help. There’s no shame in actively taking steps to take better care of yourself. It’s possible to learn to enjoy that ice cream before you make it disappear.

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