The Emotional Eater

People who eat when they're upset have at least one thing in common. They head straight for high-fat, high-calorie goodies instead of healthy, low-fat snacks.

By Eric W. Martin, published on March 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Do you head for the kitchen when you're upset? If so, one study offers both good news and bad.

The good news is that "emotional eaters"—more often female—eat no more than non-emotional eaters when in stressful situations; the bad news is they're more likely to indulge in foods high in fat and calories.

Researchers at University College in London interviewed 68 people about their food preferences and eating attitudes. Half the participants were then given 10 minutes to prepare a four-minute speech that they would deliver after lunch. To compound the stress, they were led to believe that the speech would be filmed and evaluated. The other group merely listened to a brief presentation before lunch.

For lunch, participants were offered a range of high-fat and low-fat bland, sweet and salty foods. After measuring the quantities of food that the participants ate, the researchers found that "emotional eaters ate more sweet, fatty, and thus energy-dense foods under stress."

One reason for this, researchers suggest, is that a carbohydrate-rich, protein-poor diet allows more tryptophan—a mood regulating amino acid—into the brain. And as we've all learned at Thanksgiving dinner, a serving of tryptophan-laced turkey puts us in a sleepy mood—a sure cure for combating stress.