By Ryesa Mansoor, BSPH
TW/CW: This article mentions binge eating disorder and disordered eating.
We’ve all felt stressed out at some point in our lives. Whether it was from social or physical tension, or the ever-relatable scenario of staying up late to finish a presentation or study for that midterm exam. Regardless of the exact stressor, we’ve all experienced that same dread before. And while being stressed out, most of us have probably had our cravings or “midnight snack” – some sort of comfort food to enjoy and eat to keep us going.
You might already have an idea of what your “comfort food” is. It might be chocolate or desserts, a homemade meal from your childhood that brings on warm feelings of nostalgia. For some of us it’s that snack we immediately think of eating when we want to feel better or to reassure us that everything will be okay. But how exactly does the food we eat, or crave, relate to our emotions and mood changes? What does stress have to do with it? Why do we have this tendency to go to food when we are upset?
Decades of research have been dedicated to studying the intersection between psychology and nutrition to figure out this delicate interaction between the food we eat and our emotions. The term “emotional eating” is consistently defined as overeating (or, hyperphagia) in response to negative emotions or change in mood. Some studies show that in response to a stressor, people prefer hyperpalatable (high-fat and high-carbohydrate) foods, which tend to fall along the lines of “comfort food” most people turn to.
Although a loss of appetite (or, hypophagia) can also occur as a response to negative emotions, the psychological angle of emotional eating focuses on the tendency to eat an excessive amount of food. There are numerous postulations as to the mechanisms behind this association – as a result, there is no clear cut, direct answer. Rather, there are a wide array of theories and potential explanations that we can consider.
One behavioral neuroscience/psychology approach uses a combined conditioning model, where negative emotions act as a stimulus to incite a conditioned response of craving or appetite and results in operant behavior (eating response) that is reinforced by the reduction of negative emotions [Figure 1]. The calm and happy feelings we receive upon eating and reducing those negative emotions reinforces our desire to consume more comfort food when we are upset again. A more neurobiological approach touches on the idea that negative emotions trigger repeated activation of the body’s hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) neuroendocrine system [Figure 2]. This system regulates response to stress and releases glucocorticoid hormones (i.e. the stress hormone cortisol), which can have an impact on appetite and regulation of eating. Dysregulation of this system from chronic stress can therefore result in decreased HPA activity, and those under chronic stress conditions tend to eat more and prefer hyperpalatable, energy-dense foods.
Though emotional eating is not implicated to be disordered eating (such as binge eating disorder), it is still a concern for any individual. Excessive eating, especially as a tool for emotional regulation, can cause increased risk of obesity and worse psychological and physical health outcomes. Some of these outcomes include, but are not limited to, worsened states of anxiety and depression and changes in metabolic state.
Therefore, it’s important to be self-aware and understand how and why emotional eating occurs. Are we eating because we are truly hungry, or because of how we are feeling? Heightening our awareness and mindfulness of our eating habits can help us improve our eating behaviors, and determine better ways to cope with our feelings when we are upset or stressed. Next time you’re working towards a deadline and you’re craving those chips or that chocolate bar, think about what’s really motivating your hunger, and what you can do about it!
Here are some great links and resources to read more about emotional eating and mindfulness:
- Struggling with emotional eating?
- Emotional eating
- NutriBites article: Prescribe a Better Diet for a Better Mood
- NutriBites article: Cooking for the sake of sanity, soul, and gut health
Peer-edited by Gabby Dardis, Biochemistry PhD Candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill
- Header Graphic credit; Himika Rahman, MPH
- Image 2 credit: Gabrielle Dardis, Biochemistry PhD Candidate
- Images 3 and 4 credit: Ryesa Mansoor, BSPH