Understanding and Managing Emotional Eating

Dr. Don Fernando Azevedo a founding member of Marriage Counseling Specialists Group
June 1, 2017
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Understanding and Managing Emotional Eating

Eating disorders are misunderstood by many people. Usually seen as a result of poor body image, the actual symptoms behind them can be far more complex. Eating disorders also extend beyond the realm of anorexia, bulimia, and other well-known examples.

One of the most frequent of these is emotional eating. So frequent, in fact, that 49% of adults do it! Of course, the occasional overindulgence happens, but they can interfere with weight loss or exacerbate other issues. Today we’ll try to understand this habit and how to treat it.

Why Food?

Why do we instinctively turn to food for comfort? It ties back into the reward system, one of our most primal features. That system evolved to encourage us to do things that ensure our survival: procreate, receive affection, and, yes, eat. That burger feels so good because your body is hard-wired to encourage you to eat.

But our hunter gatherer ancestors never had McDonald’s, and so those cravings often lead to overindulgence. Those feelings of pleasure are for safety, comfort, or just for their own sake.

Reasons for Emotional Eating

So if food is a magical drug that makes us feel better, emotional eaters logically have that goal in mind. Situations that might encourage emotional eating include:

  • You ever watched a movie, looked down and realized the entire tub of popcorn is gone? Eating can be an unconscious habit.
  • You’ve had a hard day, but the rush of endorphins from a juicy burger can make it all vanish! Unfortunately, it won’t make that beer gut disappear any faster.
  • Food is fun. It’s a cultural institution, something we enjoy with friends and family. We often associate it with good times, so when you’re bored, you might be tempted to order a pizza.
  • Self-Loathing. People with low self-esteem can easily overeat. If you don’t care about yourself, it’s easy to fill your body with things that aren’t good for it.


Because emotional eating is often compulsive, mindfulness goes a long way towards preventing it. In short, mindfulness is the practice of constant, deliberate self-awareness. It’s sort of like ongoing meditation, and is a habit that must be practiced. Newbies to mindfulness can join local groups or check out a variety of apps that help you get started.

When emotional eating is based in self-image, trauma, or coping mechanisms, it’s important to identify the root cause. A therapist can help. If you have chronic issues with emotional eating, schedule an appointment with Azevedo Family Psychology today! You can create a life worth celebrating.

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