We are not always very good at deciphering, managing, and moderating our emotions. When we have a bad feeling or a moment of stress, the thought of reaching for a chocolate bar or a bag of chips can be comforting.

The risk is then to trivialize this behavior, not to know how to manage one’s emotions differently, and thus to become a slave to this same behavior. We are not very far from addiction here. We must therefore be careful not to let our emotions dictate our relationship to food entirely. Moreover, the pleasure felt temporarily dissipates the tension or inner discomfort, but in a fleeting way, and above all, without eliminating its causes.

Why emotional eating became a problem, but only recently?

The human body has its own mechanisms for regulating food. Nevertheless, we sometimes have so much trouble keeping them in balance.

It is mainly because the world has changed since these balancing mechanisms were created. For our ancestors, food was generally difficult to access until relatively recently – probably less than a century ago.

Today, in industrialized countries, most people no longer even have to ask themselves where and when they will find food. It is this accessibility and abundance of food that makes the difference.

In addition, the more sugar-rich food is, the cheaper it is. The human brain is therefore faced with a permanent and easily accessible stimulant. This opens the way to some harmful habits, in particular, the use of food so readily available, as a means of regulating one’s own emotions.

Why do you feel compelled to eat just to comfort yourself?

We understand that working on managing your emotions is often an essential part of the process, especially in the treatment of eating disorders. It is a matter of learning to identify better the emotions that trigger a desire to eat. And to understand why food is sometimes used to anesthetize this emotion.

And then, of course, it is necessary to identify the factors that can be responsible for the emotion in a given situation, so that we are no longer at the mercy of this mechanism. For example, are there any particular situations that are triggering it? Are there professional, family, personal, or even psychiatric factors involved?

Sometimes, it is a trauma that is at the root of the phenomenon. Traumatized people represent a significant number of cases of emotional eating, for whom eating can be a way to anesthetize the strong negative emotions associated with their trauma.

There are also pathologies where emotions are distorted, and with it, food consumption. This is the case with bipolar disorders. In this case, psychiatric treatment is efficient in restoring dietary balance.

Emotional eating is also linked to social anxiety as well as Attention Deficit Disorder (with or without hyperactivity). ADHD promotes impulsivity and thus, compulsive eating.

It is then a way of eating that is linked to a feeling, most often negative, but which can also be positive. As an example, think of the desire to “have a good meal” when you have heard excellent news.

The goal is then to allow the person to step back, and be able to change what causes negative emotions in them. Or even some positive emotions that they can also lead to emotional eating.

Is emotional eating a form of addiction?

When food is used as a means of emotional regulation, and no longer as a nutrient supply as it should be, a shift can occur.

Leaning over the bag of chips as soon as you feel stressed or unhappy provides a moment of transitional comfort. But when it becomes a habit, a phenomenon of tolerance can develop (i.e., the bag of chips won’t cut itanymore, where is that chocolate bar?)

Then, eating doesn’t bring much pleasure anymore, and you have to increase the doses. This is one of the characteristic signs at work in the case of addiction to other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, or cannabis. But also for addictive behaviors such as gambling.

Over the past decade, research suggesting the existence of food addiction has increased.

On the one hand, researchers have begun to assess the addictive nature of diet in some people using questionnaires by analogy with conventional addictions.

And on the other hand, alot of work has been carried out on the preclinical side, which has highlighted similarities between addiction and compulsive diet.

Common characteristics can be observed in both cases, such as:

  • A loss of control over addictive behavior (e.g., “despite all my efforts, I can’t stop eating a candy bar or cake when I see one when I get home from work”)

  • Persistence beyond the damage suffered (e.g., “I am starting to gain weight, my blood tests are bad, I have trouble climbing stairs, I no longer like my body, but I keep eating”),

  • Tolerance criteria (e.g., “once, I was happy with a little piece of chocolate, now I need the whole bar to have the same pleasure from it”),

  • And withdrawal symptoms (e.g., “I try to eat less, to resist these cravings for sweets, but it’s unbearable!”).

Does our society encourage these behaviors?

Addictive behaviors are facilitated by the accessibility of the means to keep feeding the addiction. The time frame within which you can obtain a substance largely determines the likelihood of falling into dependency.

In fact, the time it takes to secure a fatty or sweet food, if the need arises, is considerably shortened today in our society. If you have a sudden need for a high-calorie soda or a very fatty hamburger, in most cases you can get it in less than thirty minutes (unless you are lost in the middle of the desert).

Of course, it is much easier to get food quickly than cocaine, heroin or cannabis, or even to get to the casino, which makes addiction to food even more likely.

So, we would have trouble holding back, because food is everywhere?

Yes, today’s environment encourages impulsive behavior. In other words, choosing without any waiting, without deferring one’s desires and without taking into account the longer-term consequences.

Everything is there, within reach, so how can you resist? This dimension of impulsivity plays an essential role both in the emotional eating that many of us are familiar with, as well as in the real addiction that is more rare.

In the latter case, it is even the first risk factor. When you start to have an unhealthy relationship to food, a current craving is more likely to result in food intake in one impulsive person than in a less impulsive person.

Another factor of vulnerability is neuroticism, or the tendency to have negative emotions such as sadness or fear. People suffering from neuroticism are more likely than others to use food to regulate their emotions. So, if you are both subject to negative emotions and very impulsive, it gets harder to fight addiction to food.

Is food addiction the same as other types of addiction?

In functional MRI, it appears that when people with food addiction are confronted with their favorite foods, their reward system (the part of the brain that provides pleasure and encourages the associated behavior to be reproduced) is activated in a similar way to that observed in people with drug addiction.

However, it is not known whether this brain activation is not simply due to the pleasure felt while eating, without there being necessarily a direct pharmacological action on the neurons.

Indeed, most people obviously enjoy eating chocolate more than broccoli, and it is perhaps this pleasant feeling that we are looking for. Just as we like to take a nice hot bath after running in cold rain – we can’t call it an addiction to hot baths.

There is a bit of both with food: a hedonic aspect, and an addictive potentiality with increased doses, tolerance, and withdrawal effect.
Even though the first experiments in animals (carried out in particular by Serge Ahmed, in Bordeaux) suggest that there is indeed a modification of the molecular structure of the brain. The line is not easy to draw.

How to overcome emotional eating?

The first thing to do is to be aware of your own emotions, to identify them, and to understand their origins. This can be achieved through personal investigation, but also by working with a therapist, for example, through cognitive-behavioral therapies.

Therapies that target emotions are particularly interesting, especially the increasingly developed methods, known as mindfulness therapies.

For example, mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (MBSR), popularized by American physician Jon Kabat-Zinn, has real effects on bulimic hyperphagia, also known as binge eating. It is characterized by high and uncontrolled food intakewithout vomiting as in the case of classic bulimia.

By allowing the patient to manage his moments of stress better, this technique dramatically reduces the frequency of emotional outbursts and the consequent overweight from eating.

How to educate future generations about emotional eating?

Problematic eating behaviors are often picked up at an early age. It’s a bit like drug addiction. The most important risk factor for addictive disorders is the early onset of first use.

The earlier a young person starts exhibiting a sign of addictive behavior, the more likely they are to become hooked.

Well, that’s also the case with food. The earlier young people are exposed to ways of eating that help them regulate their emotions, the more likely they are to manage their emotional life through food later on, and the more difficult it will be to change these mechanisms.

Avoid feeding a young child to calm them down when they cry. Good emotional and nutritional education consists in showing him how to regulate his emotions in another way. Otherwise, he will be dependent all his life to a reflex consisting of taking food to chase away negative emotions.

And then, helping him to regulate his emotions can consist, quite simply, in taking the time to be with him, talking to him and comforting him.

It takes more investment than giving him a bag of chips or putting him in front of a screen, which we know increases food intake.

From this point of view, it is becoming urgent to explain to the youngest that our current digital and media environment does not help them to establish a healthy relationship to food. As we are much more tempted by the media today, than thirty or forty years ago to, use impulsive eating.


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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