Every one of us has to endure stress at one time or another and everyone deals with it in their own way. For millions of people, emotional eating, or using food to deal with stress, is one way of coping. Those who engage in emotional eating turn to food when they are upset, hoping that it will improve their negative feelings.
Those who cope with feelings with emotional eating tend to choose foods that are high in fat, protein and carbohydrates or "comfort foods." Some common comfort foods include ice cream, chocolate, pizza, macaroni and cheese and fast food to name a few. These components work chemically in the brain to temporarily improve one’s mood.
Depending on the kinds of foods that a person prefers, the result may be a sedative or a stimulant effect. For example tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein rich foods that is well known for its calming and sleep inducing effects. Dairy products contain a good amount of tryptophan which is why an emotional eater may choose ice cream or pizza as a response to anxiety.
The media portrays the act of emotional eating very well though somewhat unrealistically. Television dramas and sitcoms show an actress indulging in a gallon of ice cream after a break up or binging on junk food to deal with anxiety prior to a big event. These scenes achieve their effect well, however, the actresses or in some cases actors are usually attractive, thin and not representative of the many millions of people that struggle with emotional eating due to negative feelings, and the weight gain issues that may come along with that.
For the majority of people who engage often in emotional eating, weight gain is often the biggest consequence. However, for some people emotional eating can lead to more serious issues. It is possible for emotional eating to progress to more serious eating disorders and/or food addictions.
One of the main eating disorders associated with emotional eating is bulimia nervosa. Victims with this disorder report that they attempt to fill a psychological void or feeling of emptiness with food. This disorder is accompanied with vomiting after a binge of emotional eating to prevent weight gain. Mood swings, low self esteem, feeling out of control and unexplained weight gain are some warning signs of deeper issues involving emotional eating and can indicate an eating disorder.
Emotional eating is by no means always an indication of eating disorders but it is often a contributing factor in cases of obesity and its associated health risks. This is an instance of food addiction which is very difficult to resolve. People who eat to relieve stress do not have the option of giving up food altogether as those who are addicted to alcohol or drugs are advised to do. Obviously people need food to survive which makes emotional eating an extremely difficult habit to break.