Snack Attack: How to Recognize + Prevent Emotional Eating



You’re stressed. The solution? Go find a bag of Oreos, a large extra cheesy pizza, and a pint of ice cream, and you’re good to go! But wait, you might be falling prey to an unhealthy behavior that’s affecting more and more Americans, particularly millennials. According to the American Psychological Association, millennials are more likely than other group to eat unhealthy foods due to stress, with 50% of those surveyed saying they’ve done so within the last month. [1] This is concerning because excessive eating can lead to eating disorders and cardiovascular problems. Because ⅔ of Americans are either overweight or obese, emotional eating is an important issue to consider. [2] Read on to discover how you can become a healthy, not an emotional, eater!


what is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is defined as excessive eating in response to negative emotions. Common sources of emotional eating include stress, sadness, anxiety, boredom, and anger. While major issues like child abuse and parental divorce can be sources of emotional eating, even more commonplace problems like final exams and work stress can trigger the behavior. [3]


factors that influence emotional eating

negative emotions

Researchers have found that negative emotions like loneliness, anxiety, and fatigue can trigger overeating in women. All of these negative emotions are shown to correlate with higher reported stress levels. Interestingly, negative feelings don’t actually disappear after an emotional eating episode, indicating that emotional eating isn’t even an effective coping mechanism. [3] A 2012 study published in the Frontiers of Psychology found that in particular, emotional eating in students is caused by stress, anxiety, and even boredom. [4] Some common sources of stress for students include too much work, self-image problems, and worries about social life. [3]

personal factors

A 2014 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that emotional eating is correlated with low socioeconomic status and a variety of psychological problems. For instance, individuals who have grown up in low-income neighborhoods or who have suffered from depression are more likely to engage in emotional eating. However, among the variety of factors that influence emotional eating, childhood emotional abuse has been most strongly correlated with emotional eating in adulthood [5]


stress and emotional eating

what is stress?

Stress is a physiological condition in which an individual’s heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing quickens, and muscles tighten. This response is known as the fight-or-flight response and can be initiated by a number of issues, such as upcoming exams or injury. Stress is associated with numerous psychological problems (that can also trigger emotional eating) like depression and apathy. Feelings of alienation and anxiety, which can be common among college students, are also linked to stress. [6]

how does stress affect emotional eating?

Stress elevates the release of  glucocorticoids, which are hormones released by the adrenal glands. [7] This secretion can intensify emotions. Additionally, stress releases a hormone called cortisol that is hypothesized to trigger cravings for foods high in sugar and fat. [8]

Because food has rewarding properties, hyperpalatable foods are considered “comfort foods” and are often used as a form of self-medication. [7] While comfort foods can vary from person to person, they’re usually foods that are sugary and processed, like chips, cake, soda, cookies, and cupcakes. [9] Eating these foods reduces stress by releasing a hormone called dopamine, which is correlated with increased feelings of pleasure. However, the effects of dopamine are short-lived, which means you won’t feel the increased pleasure or motivation for long. [7]


emotional eating in men and women


Emotional eating is affected by stressors that appear as early as adolescence. Early emotional eating can result in a long-term struggle with weight. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have found no difference in emotional eating rates between boys and girls.  However, a 2010 study in Eating Disorders suggested that in boys, emotional eating is most often the result of confused mood, while in girls, emotional eating is most often the result of stress. [3]


Fewer independent studies have been conducted on men and emotional eating because of perceived stereotypes. Often, men are unfairly stereotyped as being able to better control their emotions, but it’s important that all individuals, regardless of gender or background, be given equal attention.  One of the few studies comparing men’s and women’s eating habits was published in 2016 in the Public Health Nutrition Journal  and found that women had higher rates of emotional eating, even though the difference was small. Women, who were generally more concerned about health and appearance, were also more likely to have restrained diets. [10]

In a 2012 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,  researchers found that women who feel burnout from their occupation and experience fatigue, cynicism, and disrespect in the workplace engage more frequently in emotional and uncontrolled eating. In order to solve these issues, it is recommended that women deal with burnout first and then address eating issues. [11]

Likewise, a 2015 study in the Nutrition Journal found that low-income women with high stress levels caused by problems such as lack of money and long work hours are more likely to engage in emotional eating and uncontrolled eating. [12]


how to cope with emotional eating

A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association  suggests that relaxation training and new technology could be useful in reducing emotional eating symptoms. Relaxation training includes yoga and meditation. [13]

  • Go to CAPS at UCLA! There is a team waiting to help you with any issue that you have.

  • Keep a food diary so you can look back at your food choices. You’ll be more likely to notice patterns, such as eating more comfort foods under social pressure or in loneliness.

  • Talk to a doctor. Make a list of what stresses you out—it may have to do more with what’s going on in your life than with the food itself. To start, try to sort out any relationship conflicts, work stress, fatigue problems, financial pressures, or health problems. [14]

  • Here are some additional suggestions from WebMD:

  • Talk to a friend.

  • Read a book or magazine, or listen to music.

  • Go for a walk or jog.

  • Meditate or do deep breathing exercises.

  • Play a game.

  • Do housework, laundry, or yard work. [15]


webMD: healthy modifications to comfort foods

Cookies: substitute 1/3 of the flour with quick-cooking oats.

Brownies: Use canola oil instead of vegetable oil because it’s lower in saturated fat. You can also replace half of the oil with applesauce.

Macaroni and cheese: Use reduced-fat cheese, 1% milk, and replace half of your shredded cheese with puréed low-fat cottage cheese or butternut squash. [16]


bottom line

While you might feel tempted to reach for that bag of chips when finals come around, remind yourself that emotional eating is not the best way to deal with your problems. In fact, emotional eating doesn’t reduce stress in the long-term and can instead lead to serious health problems. If you’re feeling stressed out and want to reach for a comfort snack, opt for activities that have actually been proven to be successful, like listening to music or exercising.

References ▾

  1. “Stress and Eating.” (2016).
  2. “Overweight and Obesity Statistics.” (2010).
  3. “Psychological Determinants of Emotional Eating in Adolescence.” Eat Disord. (2009).
  4. “Perceptions of emotional eating behavior. A qualitative study of college students.” Appetite. (2013).
  5. “The mediating role of emotion dysregulation and depression on the relationship between childhood trauma exposure and emotional eating.” Appetite. (2015).
  6. “Stress Symptoms.” (2016).
  7. “Stress and Eating Behaviors.” Minerva Endocrinol. (2013).
  8. “Why stress causes people to overeat.” Harvard Health Publication. (2012).
  9. “The Best and Worst Foods for Your Pantry.” (2015).
  10. “Investigating sex differences in psychological predictors of snack intake among a large representative sample.” Public Health Nutr. (2016).
  11. “Occupational burnout, eating behavior, and weight among working women .” Am J Clin Nutr. (2012).
  12. “Perceived stress, unhealthy eating behaviors, and severe obesity in low-income women.” Nutr J. (2015).
  13. “Can relaxation training reduce emotional eating in women with obesity? An exploratory study with 3 months of follow-up.” J Am Diet Assoc. (2009).
  14. “Perceived stress, unhealthy eating behaviors, and severe obesity in low-income women.” Nutr J. (2015).
  15. “How to Stop Emotional Eating.” (2016).
  16. “Comfort Food Family Makeovers.” (2013).

more in eat well