Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Are You an Emotional Eater?

We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.


People commonly use food to deal with stress. After all, food is an enjoyable distraction and easy to find. When you feel stressed at work, a vending-machine candy bar may only be steps from your office. At home, our well-stocked pantries and refrigerators make emotional eating an easy way to cope. And once in the kitchen, what foods call to us? It certainly isn’t lettuce or carrots. Most likely we hear a siren song from ice cream, chips and salsa, cake, or some other high-calorie food.

One TV commercial shows a sniffling, downtrodden young woman paying for items at a convenience store. She places ice cream, potato chips, and a box of tissues on the counter. The elderly cashier empathetically says, “Oh, honey, he broke up with you again?” Viewers understand this because emotional eating is so common. This young woman is using food to deal with sadness, abandonment, and anger.

In my weight management groups and individual sessions with people trying to lose weight, I frequently ask, “What influences you to eat when you aren’t hungry?”

Many people respond by saying, “I’m an emotional eater.” Even among those who deny emotional eating, we often discover patterns of weight gain during stressful times and life transitions that suggest otherwise. And it’s not just negative stress – positive stress also can influence eating and physical activity. Exciting life transitions, sometimes referred to as eustress, can impact our behavior. These stressors may include the birth of a child, a job promotion, a new house, or a new relationship. We might gain weight because we party and stop exercising at college, take on the unhealthy habits of a spouse during our first year of marriage, use food as entertainment when we travel, or celebrate anything and everything with cake. Over time, eating during periods of eustress or distress becomes a pattern that seems normal. We eat without much awareness of the circumstances and emotions that contribute to our food choices.

Redefining pleasure can help us eat healthy during times of celebration and still enjoy life. Monitoring weight, physical activity, and diet can keep us from veering off track during exciting times. But for many people, persistent distress is more connected to unhealthy weight than positive stress. With or without awareness, stressed-out employees, moms and dads, college students, and even children self-medicate with food.

I don’t want to turn you into an unemotional robot when it comes to eating. I do want to help you become intentional about how you react to stress. Being deliberate and aware of our reactions is often a challenge, because the interaction between emotions and eating is complex. Fortunately, we can begin making positive changes without understanding every detail of why we eat.

To simplify, let’s accept that emotions affect everyone’s eating habits to a certain degree. Your unique patterns may be so ingrained that you barely notice them. To better understand your patterns, it may help to answer the following questions:

As the questions above illustrate, people have different patterns of emotional eating. You may be a grazer — tasting food as you hurriedly prepare dinner or inching your way through a sleeve of crackers while helping a reluctant child complete his homework. Maybe you tend to not eat when you’re stressed, but overcompensate later when the pressures of life subside. Or you may be a frequent binge eater, consuming food until you’re uncomfortably full, feeling out of control and only eating in private, and feeling embarrassed and guilty when you finish. If the last sentence describes you, consider seeking professional help. A therapist skilled in eating disorders can help you better understand your behavior.

In the next article, we’ll cover how to cope with emotions in a healthy manner.

Come back each week for more healthy weight loss advice from Dr. David Creel.