Emotional Overeating

Emotional overeating means turning to food for comfort and escape during times of low mood. When someone overeats emotionally, they are attempting to feel comforted and soothed.

Enjoying food as a reward or pick-me-up from time to time is a normal, natural part of life. When used as part of a range or strategies to manage emotions and cope, it can be helpful. However, problems arise if this is the only strategy you use, and if it happens so regularly that you begin to feel like you’re not in control.

There are some key differences between emotional overeating and eating due to feeling physically hungry.

Differences

Emotional hunger

  • Comes on suddenly. 
  • Feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly.
  • Leads to cravings for specific foods, especially those high in fat and sugar.
  • Isn’t satisfied with a full stomach. 
  • Causes feelings of guilt, shame, and powerlessness.

Physical hunger

  • Comes on gradually.
  • Is not urgent in nature.
  • Means a range of foods sound appealing.
  • Is satisfied when the person is full.
  • Does not cause negative emotions.

We’re still learning more about the causes of emotional overeating and eating disorders. There is no one main cause or trigger, and it is likely to be a complex combination of genetic, psychological, environmental, social and biological factors.

Emotional overeating also has some things in common with binge eating disorder. However, BED is a specific diagnosis that may be given when binge eating occurs regularly over a longer period and is causing distress, while emotional overeating describes a type of eating behaviour. Someone with binge eating disorder will also often eat an unusually large amount of food during a binge, but this is not always the case with emotional overeating.

What do we know about emotional overeating?

During the summer of 2014, Beat carried out a national survey into emotional overeating. The purpose of the survey was to learn more about the personal experiences of people who are affected by emotional overeating, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the issue.

The survey was aimed at over 18s who binge eat, compulsively overeat, feel they have emotional eating issues and are obese or struggling with their weight. A total of 1017 responses were received, the key results of the survey are shown below:

85% of respondents said they have a negative body image of themselves.

79% felt pressure from society to lose weight.

Of the respondents who saw their GP about their weight, only 21% were asked about their emotional health.

91% of respondents said they would like peer support, either in person or online, to help them with their emotional overeating.

Signs of Emotional Overeating

Behavioural signs

  • Eating in secret
  • Buying lots of extra food
  • Hiding food packaging
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

Psychological signs

  • Some feelings at first of comfort, relief and escape when eating
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Worry
  • Feeling fed up

Physical signs

  • Stomach pains
  • Bloating
  • Feeling sick
  • Poor skin
  • Trouble sleeping and tiredness
  • Weight gain

Issue date: September 2016  Review date: September 2019 Version 2.0 Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.