Contrary to popular belief, disordered eating doesn’t always start in the same way. It can be a gradual process that is hard to recognize at first, but after a while can turn into something more serious. Having an unhealthy relationship with food can begin as easily as snacking during the middle of the night, or simply turning to food during times of extreme stress, boredom, or other emotional situations.
Emotional eating is defined as “the practice of consuming large quantities of food—usually ‘comfort’ or junk foods—in response to feelings instead of hunger” (Stoppler, 2018). Many people use food as a coping mechanism because it gives them a sense of comfort or control over bad life circumstances, like a breakup or a bad grade on a test. However, the initial feeling of happiness or relief is quickly replaced with guilt as a result of excessive eating, which can begin the vicious cycle of disordered eating. Suddenly, food has more control over you than you do over it, causing an overreliance on food and an unwillingness to face the problem head-on (Smith et. al, 2020). Eating disorders are as much a mental battle as they are a physical one. Emotional eating can lead to a negative self-image, since the aftermath of binging can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. It can be tough to break the cycle of emotional eating, and eventually, a full blown eating disorder like bulimia or binge eating can develop.
Having a disordered relationship with food can cause a variety of changes within one’s body. The most common characteristics of emotional eating are low-self esteem, preferences to junk food over healthy food, sudden cravings, and intense feelings of hunger, even when full (Hunnicutt, 2020). These symptoms are easy to hide from others, which makes stopping unhealthy habits all the more difficult. It’s important to understand that food is meant as a source of nutrients, not a source of comfort. Once the lines blur, it can become difficult to overcome the physical and emotional barriers that come with overreliance on food.
Eating disorders can also create a chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to increased levels of serotonin that are satisfied when food cravings are fulfilled, and cortisol levels fluctuating as a response to stress. Some notable signs of a developing eating disorder include lethargy, dehydration, dizziness, low blood pressure, and constipation (Hunnicutt, 2020). Without proper treatment, these side effects can have long-lasting consequences on the body. First, it can cause a disconnect between the stomach and the brain, which leads to the stomach not knowing that it’s full because eating quickly doesn’t allow certain hormones time to signal to the brain that you are full. As a result, you keep eating. In addition, many individuals have certain triggers that cause them to resort to emotional eating. It’s important to identify these triggers so they become easier to overcome.
While the fight to stop emotional eating can seem like an uphill battle, there are many other, healthier mechanisms that can be used to break unhealthy eating cycles and provide positive emotional support. Positive self-talk, meditation, and eating healthy foods are also good ways to form better habits and an overall better relationship with food. Learning how to cope with stress in a constructive way is essential to breaking the cycle of disordered eating, and speaking to a therapist or seeking support overall can be helpful as well.
Hunnicutt, C. (2020, October 9). Is Emotional Eating a Warning Sign for Eating Disorders?: Clementine – Adolescent Eating Disorders. Clementine. https://clementineprograms.com/warning-sign-eating-disorders/.
Marcin, A. (2018, August 29). Emotional Eating: What You Should Know. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/emotional-eating#What-causes-someone-to-eat-because-of-their-emotions?
Smith, M., Robinson, L., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2020, September). Emotional Eating. Emotional Eating – HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm.
Stoppler, M. (2018, December 21). Definition of emotional eating. https://www.medicinenet.com/emotional_eating/definition.htm.