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What We've Learned About Emotional Eating

Evidence demonstrates how our feelings affect our eating behaviors.

Nelly Kovalchuk/Adobe Stock
Source: Nelly Kovalchuk/Adobe Stock

The internet is full of memes about gaining weight during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no surprise: Being stuck at home without normal activities and constant access to food can easily lead to overeating. On top of boredom and proximity to food, the worries and stress that accompany a global pandemic can easily lead to emotional eating.

In fact, there is an entire body of evidence on how our emotions influence our eating behaviors. Researchers have learned that emotional eating is more complex than they once believed, and depends on a wide range of variables that can be difficult to measure.

One of the most important things researchers have learned is that emotional eating is complicated. An early systematic review established that each individual’s specific emotions and food choices are important elements in understanding emotional eating, and that secrecy surrounding eating is also a factor.

The review found evidence that emotional eating is tied to obesity. Specifically, when obese study participants experienced negative emotions, such as anger, loneliness, boredom, and depression, they ate more than normal-weight individuals and reported that the eating reduced the underlying experience of those feelings. Now researchers believe this may be a learned behavior, according to a more recent review, published last year in Current Directions in Psychological Science. This review found that people may learn to associate eating with specific emotions and social situations.

Another recent review, published in 2017, underscores the complexities in studying emotional eating. The authors found that positive emotions and social situations are also associated with eating. (Think about celebrating an accomplishment with a dinner out or a special dessert.)

They also found that a broad range of negative emotions – stress, depression and sadness, shame and aggression, and anger – were associated with emotional eating and specifically binge eating. Additionally, they found that these negative emotions were more likely to lead to unhealthy food choices. This type of emotional eating over time is what eventually leads to sustained weight gain.

This all makes the COVID-19 pandemic seem like a perfect storm for emotional eating. But while that may be true, research shows there are steps you can take to avoid emotional and binge eating, especially when experiencing negative emotions.

In a recent study from the Netherlands, researchers measured whether elements of meditation could lead to less emotional or binge eating. They found that a specific component of meditation – acting with awareness – leads to less emotional eating. This means paying closer attention to your emotional state and making conscious food choices when you experience a negative emotion. A 2014 systematic review supported the study’s conclusions: Focusing on mindfulness is an effective way to prevent emotional eating.

Finally, a review article published in 2017 evaluated treatments and interventions that target emotional eating. It found that specific types of therapy – including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – show promise for helping people to stop or avoid emotional eating. The review found a lack of research comparing these types of therapy, and found that more research would help determine which types of therapy were best for specific situations.

The take-home message: Yes, emotional eating is a real phenomenon that is especially prevalent when you feel stressed, depressed, or bored. But there are steps you can take to avoid it: Pay attention to your feelings; when you feel upset, consciously make healthy food choices; and, as always, if you think you are experiencing a more serious problem, contact a care provider for additional support.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work

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