Emotions and Food: Why Do I Binge Eat


Emotional Eating - Binge Eating Therapy

It would be nice to constantly treat our bodies like machines, just needing the correct amount of fuel to function efficiently, with the odd MOT along the way. However, eating has never and will ever be about physical hunger and satisfying that hunger alone….

We eat not just to supress a gurgling tummy but also for social reasons, pleasure and sometimes as a way to alter our emotions. Read on to find out more about some common links between emotions and food, together with  reasons for binge eating and their solutions….


Why Do We actually Eat At All?

You may think to yourself, well athletes and gym enthusiasts have a particular diets and eat large amounts, why can’t I be like them…?!

The key thing to understand here, is that the amount or types of food we eat aren’t necessarily the most important things to focus on. Rather, why we are eating the amounts, types and frequencies of foods can often lead to many more useful answers. For an athlete it’s clear that food is used as both a tool to sustain the body, but also as a way of achieving a particular goal – for example to be physically toned or muscular.

The average person doesn’t always eat just to satisfy hunger either. In fact our eating habits are often influenced by a much wider range of factors, such as time, emotions (such as stress) or even as a reward for good (and sometimes not so good) behaviour. The key thing to realise here, is that there is most often a reason, goal or function behind why were are eating.


What Is Binge Eating Disorder?

Food and our psychology can be very closely linked. For example I’m sure you can think of numerous occasions where food is used to help during sadness, loneliness, relive boredom or distress, but also to celebrate and enjoy life.

In fact research shows that emotional eating is something that we can all experience at times. The problems can come when you notice persistent changes to your thoughts, emotions and eating patterns over a longer or more frequent period of time. If this is the case it might be possible that you are experiencing signs of a particular type of eating disorder known as Binge Eating Disorder.

In binge eating disorder you might notice the following types of changes:

  • Having periods of time of uncontrollable eating, where it seems impossible to stop
  • Eating faster that normal
  • Eating to a point of feeling uncomfortable physical sensations
  • Eating when not actually feeling physically hungry
  • Experiencing difficult emotions afterwards such as guilt, shame or disgust.


Whilst these areas do not automatically make up a full diagnosis they are good indications that you may be experiencing a problematic pattern.

A common thread that is often linked with all of the signs above is using eating as a way of creating an emotional change in the mind.  For example, some people may struggle to reduce negative emotions and use eating to help do this, whilst other people may use food as a way of inducing more positive emotions – or even as a way to trigger feeling any type of emotion at all, even if it is an unpleasant one.

Emotional eating is a cycle that we can find ourselves in rather quickly and it can sometimes be quite difficult to differentiate between eating for physical hunger, or eating for another, more emotional, reason.

Understanding the differences between the two and how your body expects to be treated can help control emotional eating. For example, emotional hunger is often not ‘located’ in the tummy where you might expect. In this case hunger is a craving that comes on suddenly, a demand that you can’t stop thinking about, and the idea of certain tastes and smells is overpowering.

Whereas, in contrast, physical hunger is open to options, it is tempted by a variety of food that the body actually needs. This hunger comes on gradually and can wait until you find the right food, at the right time. Physical hunger can also dissipate when the stomach becomes full, which means that as you eat you are likely to notice moment-by-moment physical changes more easily than you might within an emotional eating cycle in which physical changes are less obvious than the particular feelings or emotions. Emotional hunger is not satisfied even when the body gives off the feeling of being full.

Following this, an intake of food to fulfil a feeling of physical hunger has a conscious free element to it. However, often following an episode of emotional binge eating there can be secondary feelings such as guilt, shame and remorse – or even self-loathing.

So why do I do it….


Why Do I Binge Eat?

There are thought to be a number of factors that can all increase our vulnerabilities to experiencing a binge eating pattern. As well as day to day emotional triggers, personal history, genetics and brain development are all thought to be highly relevant in explaining binge eating patters.

Depression can play a large role in in binge eating problems and either historical or current depression can be found in a high percentage of binge eaters. Using food in this way can be the result of low self-esteem, self-efficacy and poor body image, together contributing to difficulties we may have in managing intense emotions.  Physically our bodies can also contribute to binge eating. For example, low levels of serotonin, a chemical found in the brain, has been linked to compulsive eating.

A very hot topic at the moment in regards to diet, nutrition and body image is the social and cultural impacts on binge eating. There are intense pressures from the media, celebrity image and the idea of being attractive to others to change diet, look a certain way and to be fit.

More specifically vulnerable adults and children who have been exposed to critical feedback and comments about their body image, their race, their weight and so forth are particularly vulnerable to the impact of food and emotion links than can come with the pressures of society.  In turn this type of history can make it even more likely that we can experience difficult emotions that then lead to a binge eating episode.


What Makes Helps Binge Eating Problems?

If you are concerned about your emotions and food it is often a good idea to share your concerns with a suitable health professional such as a therapist or GP. However, there are some general principles that you might find helpful to try out too:

1) Get What You Need

It’s hard sometimes to tell the difference between being hungry and eating for emotional reasons. One way to improve this side of things is to ensure that you are getting what your body needs in order to stay healthy – and meet your energy requirements.

Being hungry can lead to problems in itself, so try to design a plan that means you eat 3 balanced meals per day. You can also include some healthy and planned routine snacks between each. That’s a possible total of 6 ‘feedings’ a day, and will ensure that your body has its requirements and that hunger isn’t an issue. This will also make it easier to identify when you are binging.

2) Bring Awareness To Your Emotions

If emotional eating is a problem it’s important to know what emotions are triggering it more for you, and to consider other ways of managing those emotions – remember we said binge eating is more a symptom of something else happening emotionally? A really good place to start is by monitoring and managing stress as well as you can. Take a look at our article on stress management skills.

It can also be a good idea to use a food diary to link together moods with what you eat, how much you eat and when you stop eating. This will help you to better understand risk factors that can occur in the future.  They say forewarned is forearmed, and so knowing ‘at risk’ situations and a plan for managing these will again reduce risks of binging ahead of time.

3) Avoid Boredom

It’s not possible to be on the go for the whole time, however, it is useful to have some structure and a rough plan to work with.

Even if emotional eating doesn’t seem a problem at first, emotions such as boredom can be just as powerful as more intense emotions such as frustration or lowness. Whilst distracting ourselves from difficult emotions isn’t always the best strategy, having a life that is reasonably full with interesting, useful, important and pleasurable things is a great way to build structure and manage boredom feelings constructively.


What Next?

Hopefully this article will have given you more information on emotional eating, and also given you some ideas of where to start in addressing this. However, if you are concerned about your own eating patterns don’t suffer in silence – it doesn’t hurt to seek a professional opinion or ideas that are specific to the problems that occur for you.


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