Remember the scene from movies or TV ads: People who recently broke up with their partners are crying and eating ice-cream from a huge ice-cream container. Does that sound familiar? When we experience negative feelings such as sadness or disappointment, we may want to lose ourselves in a table full of junk food. When we feel anxious or stressed, we may feel like we need to eat more chocolate and cookies. But does that really mean there is a relationship between emotions and eating?
Psychologists define emotional eating as people’s tendency to eat more than normal in times of negative states and situations. According to Psychosomatic Theory, eating emerges due to our inability to differentiate hunger from other internal states and we use eating as a way of coping with our negative affective states. Psychologists, thus, see emotional eating as an inappropriate response to those states since a normal response would be loss of appetite rather than eating more.
There are several studies concerning the leading causes of emotional eating. Some researchers asserted that, emotional eating is caused by emotions and mood of the individuals. When we experience negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, boredom, or anger, we become more prone to overeat comfort ourselves. Therefore, the experience of negative emotions is the reason behind our eating behavior. On the other hand, there are some research suggesting that it is not the emotions that make us eat more. In an experiment, Evers and her colleagues assigned their participants into two groups and had participants in both groups watch a brutal and violent movie excerpt which would create negative emotions. The first group was instructed to suppress their emotions while watching so that no one can understand what they feel; while the other group was instructed to reappraise what they saw as “it is not real, it is only a movie”. The results showed that the suppression group showed more tendency to eat food than the reappraisal group. Although both groups were exposed to the same negative emotion experience, they do not show the same eating response as they adopt different emotion regulation strategies. Therefore, it is not the emotions which make you eat more, but your emotion regulation strategies which are actually crucial for our wellbeing.
Since what makes us want to eat unhealthy food during stressful times is not what we feel at that time, rather, it is all about what we use as a strategy to regulate our emotions, it could make a difference if you try to reappraise your feelings or express rather than suppressing them.
Evers, C., Marijn Stok, F., & de Ridder, D. T. D. (2010). Feeding your feelings: Emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), 792–804.
Evers, C., Dingemans, A., Junghans, A. F., & Boevé, A. (2018). Feeling bad or feeling good, does emotion affect your consumption of food? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 92, 195-208.