Eating is not only a pleasurable experience, it is one of life’s necessities. We must eat to live. However, modern day humans have evolved from an experience of relative food scarcity to one of an overabundance of food. Eating is no longer a primal response to hunger, but a form of social engagement. And unfortunately, in the case of the rising obesity epidemic, it’s also become a source of disease.
When we eat beyond nutritional necessity, and we use food to self-soothe, eating can quickly become a compulsion. We transition from eating for physical reasons to eating for emotional reasons. Food becomes a source of emotional comfort, and we become dependent on this comfort as means of coping. At this point, food can actually become an addiction.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is eating in response to negative emotions,1 rather than to physical hunger. Like an addiction, emotional eaters find it difficult to stop overeating, despite the negative consequences, such as weight gain, diabetes or even social isolation. The crux of emotional eating is that emotions, not food, are the primary reason for eating.
To learn if you are an emotional eater, take this Free quiz.
Emotional eating is closely linked to binge eating disorder (BED).1 BED, a psychiatric disorder, involves recurrent episodes of eating massive amounts of food in a short time, usually less than two hours. BED affects about 2% of men and 3.5% of women and is a significant risk factor for obesity.1
People with BED or emotional eating feel that they lose control when they binge and often suffer from post-binging shame and guilt.2 You may feel a sense of self-loathing after consuming a large amount of calories and vow never to binge again. If you regularly hide food from others to eat yourself or lie about what you’ve eaten, it can be a sign of shame around overeating. Yet, there is also an overwhelming sense of powerless to stop bingeing. We can succumb when the next craving hits, creating a cycle of bingeing and post-bingeing depression. Below you’ll learn that one of the classic sign of addictions is a lack of ability to stop.
Emotional eaters, especially when under a lot of stress, are more likely to have BED. This is because stress is often the trigger for a bingeing episode. Of course, emotional eaters are not always obese or even chubby, but overeating increases the risk for gaining weight and makes it very difficult to lose weight.
The American Psychological Association2 indicates four main components of addiction to a substance or behavior:
- Loss of control: cravings so powerful it feels as though you are unable to cut down or stop.
- Social impact: addiction causes trouble in your work, family, extracurricular and social life.
- Risk: you continue to abuse the substance or activity, despite negative consequences.
- Biological effects: you become tolerant to the substance or activity and need more of it for the same effect. You may also have withdrawal or painful side effects when trying to cut back on use.
Between 10-15 % of adults have some form of addiction.4 It’s important to know that addiction is not a one-size-fits-all category. People have different signs of addiction and may not have problems in all four areas.5 For example, biological effects like withdrawal are not always present and some people can give up their addiction “cold turkey”, at least for some time. Addiction is a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and psychological factors and is deeply personal.
The Brain’s Reward System
Abused substances act on our brain’s reward system. This reward circuit induces pleasure when we use a substance or perform an activity that evolutionarily increases our survival.4 We are hard-wired to enjoy things our body believes will spread our genes. Food, like sex and social bonding, is a natural activator of our endogenous reward system.
Since the substance or activity increases pleasure, it is quite logical that we seek it out again and again to recreate the feeling of pleasure. This is why our ancient ancestors lived long enough to pass on their genes. Unfortunately, when this pleasure system is hijacked by an addiction, we change the brain’s chemistry and alter the expression of our genes.
Ultimately, high levels of the abused substance activates our endogenous stress response by increasing cortisol,4 the stress hormone. This leads to a heightened sense of unease when we are without the substance. When emotional eating combines with perceived stress or other negative emotions, there is a huge risk for food addiction.
Similar to people addicted to drugs or other vices, food addicts feel unable to stop the behavior.6 Without our food binges, we experience the sadness and anxiety that our body and mind literally feels is unsurvivable. Sadly, the repeated binges increase tolerance, so the same amount of food no longer produces pleasure. Instead, we need larger quantities of food to produce the same amount of pleasure and thus the dangerous cycle escalates.
The Role of Dopamine, Serotonin and Glutamate
The reward pathway of the brain is known as the mesolimbic dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates motivation, memory and behavior and is a target of substances of abuse such as amphetamines and cocaine.4 The circuit connects the midbrain (a more rudimentary part of the brain) to the forebrain (the most recently evolved part of our brain) indicating an important evolutionary basis for pleasure and addiction.
Dopamine is a potent activator of the hippocampus, a center for memory and learning in the brain. This is important; if you build the memory that chocolate cake is pleasurable, you are more likely to seek out an environment or situation- like a bakery- that produces chocolate cake and reinforce your behavior. An interesting study found that compared to normal weight women, obese women had more activation in the mesolimbic system when shown pictures of pizza compared to a low calorie food like fish.7
Serotonin and glutamate also regulate the brain’s reward system. Serotonin modifies stress and mood, while glutamate affects external environmental cues and memory. This is the reason that stress or certain cues associated with the abuse induce a strong craving for the substance, and why relapse is so common.4 We are more likely to relapse into addiction if we are under a lot of stress or return to the life situation in which we succumbed to addiction.
The dopamine system is not all pleasure all the time. There is a built-in negative feedback system. Increased or prolonged stimulation of the system turns on genes that decrease the total number of dopamine receptors available to be activated. One study found that, like drug abusers, obese adults have reduced brain dopamine levels.8
This describes the mechanism of tolerance; we need more and more food (or drug of abuse) to stimulate our now-depleted dopamine stores. In the same study, the adults with the lowest dopamine levels were most likely to have the highest body mass index (BMI), a measure of obesity.8 This indicates that they needed more food- with the resulting weight gain- to reproduce pleasure.
Prescription pain medication abuse is now so common that you likely know of someone who is affected. Did you know that certain foods naturally activate the same opiate receptors targeted by pain medications and other drugs of abuse such as heroin?9
Opiates affect our pain sensation, mood and emotions. Highly palatable (i.e. delicious) foods are those that are high in fats, sugar and salt6 and these naturally excite our brain’s opiate receptors. It is no coincidence that you reach for the sweets and not the salad when you feel down or that ice cream is the drug of choice after an emotional break up.The sugars and fats give you a jolt of happiness to dampen your sadness.
One double-blinded study10 looked at 61 women emotional eaters who preferred high carbohydrate snacks. In the experiment, the women were primed to feel miserable by listening to Sergei Prokofiev’s “Russia under the Mongolian Yoke” (a mournful classical piece) and recalling a sad personal memory.
Even when matched for calories and taste, participants reported less sadness when drinking a high carbohydrate drink compared to one high in protein. This occurred even though they were unaware of which drink had more carbohydrates. On repeated testing, the women liked the carbohydrate drink even better than the first time, despite the fact that it did not improve their mood as much as before. This indicates that separate from taste or number of calories, the carbohydrates itself changes our brain.
How Does Addiction to Food Begin?
While there may be other reasons, addiction commonly begins because we want to feel good or at least feel better.4 In terms of emotional eating, things can start off innocently enough. For almost everyone, food can be a source of pleasure and reward; we have all enjoyed a celebratory dinner or a birthday cake. This is very normal in our society and can be a healthy source of social interaction and community.
However, food can transition to a necessary “reward” for day-to-day life, such as a daily pint of ice cream after getting home from work. Or, it becomes the only source of comfort for perceived set backs, such as overindulging at a fast food joint in reaction to your boss not acknowledging your email. In these cases, we may be transitioning towards food addiction. Here the key is the habitual use of food for a purpose other than nutritional need.
Addiction really takes hold when you are aware there is a problem, but feel powerless to stop it. For example, if you binge alone late at night, you likely know something is wrong. Still, you may feel unable to resist the urge to finish the box of cookies and later buy another box and repeat the cycle. In addition, there can be serious health side effects; emotional eaters are not only at risk for obesity, but also diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions due to this frequent consumption of unhealthy foods and amounts. The sense of shame, impotence and guilt also make for significant mental anguish, often associated with addiction.
Psychology of Emotional Eating
Binge eating is strongly associated with a feeling of overwhelming stress.1 Previous studies show that emotional eaters tend to have increased emotional distress and problematic interpersonal relationships. They are more likely to have anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations and stormy intimate relationships.11
A reason behind this is that emotional eating is associated with alexithymia, or a lack of emotional awareness.1 This inability to correctly identify and therefore deal with negative emotions puts emotional eaters at risk for using substances or activities to “numb” these vague and uncomfortable feelings. Food becomes a panacea for a generalized feeling of unrest or sadness.
Compulsive eating further wreaks emotional distress by bringing with it feelings of guilt and shame. Also, emotional eaters spend significant energy and time engaged in overeating, time and energy that might have been spent on truly pleasurable things like enjoying time with a friend or attending a concert. Food and eating literally takes over your life.
Food as addiction
All these findings point to food as a definite source of addiction. We evolved to seek pleasure because it generally meant that we were increasing our survival. However, in our modern world this evolutionary strength does not always serve us well. Emotional eating can wreak havoc on our lives because it is so closely linked to addiction.
It is important to learn the root cause of emotional eating. Emotional eating is not about food at all; it’s about an addiction to not feeling our emotions. It’s time to take the first step towards recovery and break free from the bondage to food addiction now.
- Pinaquy S, Chabrol H, Simon C et. al. Emotional Eating, Alexithymia, and Binge-Eating Disorder in Obese Women. Volume 11, Issue 2 February 2003 Pages 195–201.
- National Eating Disorders Association. Binge Eating Disorder: Overview and Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/binge-eating-disorder. 2016.
- Ranna Parekh (ed). What is addiction? Retrieved from: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction. January 2017.
- MacNicol B. The biology of addiction. Can J of Anes 2017; 64 (2): 141–148.
- Corsica J & Pelchat M. Food addiction: true or false? Current Opinion in Gastroenterology 2010, 26:165–169.
- Goldberg J (ed). Food addiction. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/binge-eating-disorder/mental-health-food-addiction#1. August 2016
- Stoeckel LE, Weller RE, Cook EW, et al. Widespread reward system activation in obese women in response to pictures of high calorie foods. Neuroimage 2008; 41:636–647.
- Wang GJ, Volkow ND, Logan J, et al. Brain dopamine and obesity. Lancet 2001; 357:354–357.
- Guiliano C, Robbins TW, Nathan PJ et. al. Inhibition of opioid transmission at the μ-opioid receptor prevents both food seeking and binge-like eating. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012;37(12):2643-52.
- Spring B, Schneider K, Smith M, et al. Abuse potential of carbohydrates for overweight carbohydrate cravers. Psychopharmacology 2008; 197:637– 647.
- Stien V, Schippers G & Cox V.On the relationship between emotional and external eating behavior. Addict Behav. 1995;20(5):585-94.