Emotional eating, defined as turning toward food to self-soothe instead of seeking human connection for comfort, is sometimes treated as a pop culture joke (e.g. the image of a woman downing a pint of ice cream on Saturday night, or piling extra helpings onto her plate).
But a small new study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy poignantly reveals the complex precursors of emotional eating and explores the consequences — higher BMI and greater propensity towards obesity, emotional insecurity, shame, and guilt — for emotional eaters and their families.
The researchers interviewed eight women between the ages of 30 and 57; all were self-described as emotional eaters with a BMI of 30 or higher (clinically obese). Their open-ended responses were clustered into 10 overarching "themes" that provide a deeper understanding of why emotional eating is a trap — and why it's so hard to stop.
1. Personal and cultural reasons. Emotional eaters consume food in large quantities for reasons that don't have much to do with hunger. More than half described overeating for traditional or cultural reasons, or because eating was associated with the American Dream.
2. Preoccupation with food and eating. Emotional eaters are fixated on food and often feel consumed by the stressful belief that food will not be available. Two study participants described this well, saying food has seductive qualities and that it "draws them in" and "calls to them." For all these participants, the lure of food seemed to grow into something larger than they believed they could control.
3. Relationship history. Many emotional eaters have a history of poor relationships and the fear of letting another person in emotionally. Food becomes a way of protecting oneself.
4. Addiction as coping mechanism. Half of the participants have a history of alcohol or drug abuse. Food became a substitute or adjunct to their addictions.
5. Moments of empowerment and acceptance. Acceptance of their weight and eating habits came in waves for some emotional eaters. Some described adopting a nonjudgmental stance and acknowledging that perfection is not achievable. But "fat-acceptance" usually doesn't last.
6. Self-judgments about eating and weight. Emotional eaters are self-critical. All described a feeback loop of being judgmental of their emotional eating and their failure to control their eating and lose weight.
7. Negative social influences. Shame, ostracization by others, and fear of judgment was a powerful perception among emotional eaters. It keeps them from confiding their emotional eating to others or seeking help.
8. Secretive eating. Emotional eaters are secretive eaters who hide food to gain some of the power they don't feel in their daily lives.
9. Ambivalent feelings for food. Emotional eaters aren't necessarily food lovers. Many describe a "love-hate" relationship with food.
10. Emotional hunger. Emotional eaters conflate the need for human comfort or companionship for physical hunger.