When things get tough, Bengaluru-based business executive Geetanjali Rao, 32, finds herself in a familiar yet troubling routine. Every time work stress peaks or personal issues become overwhelming, she reaches for her favourite comfort foods — a big plate of biryani, a packet of chips, sweets, or samosas.
Rao, like many others, is caught in the cycle of “emotional eating”, a widespread issue across India’s urban landscape.
Rao’s story is not unique in today’s fast-paced environment, where food often becomes a refuge for those grappling with emotional turbulence.
Nandini G, a clinical psychologist at People Tree Hospital in Bengaluru, says, “Ideally, one would only opt for a snack or meal in response to real hunger, led by the body’s natural signals of an empty stomach. However, this isn’t always the case.”
“Think about the times we automatically reach for an additional serving of masala chips while engrossed in an exciting cricket match, or when we gravitate towards ice cream or chocolate when driven by feelings of sadness or boredom. Such instances, which are quite routine in our lives, underscore the often overlooked gap between our eating patterns and genuine hunger, indicating the prevalent issue of emotional eating,” she tells South First.
What is emotional eating?
Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Manipal Hospital on Old Airport Road in Bengaluru, Dr Satish Kumar CR, explains that the term “emotional eating” defines itself.
“Even if there’s no appetite, the person still ends up eating. Normally, eating is always preceded by hunger. The right way of eating is, ‘I am hungry and, hence, I eat food, and for the next few hours, I am not hungry. After engaging in various activities, I feel hungry again and then I eat’. However, in emotional eating, whether I am hungry or not, the eating is not driven by hunger but by emotions,” he tells South First.
Some like to eat French fries and pizzas, some may like to eat biryani, pulao, white rice — a lot of carbs, basically — and others may want to eat something sweet. So it depends on each person and is subjective by nature, says Dr Satish.
He says that past literature has shown evidence that emotional eating is seen more often in women than in men. And it is seen more often in teens and young adults than in older adults.
Emotional eating, according to Dr Satish, most often in the evening or towards the end of the day. “It could either be dinner or even post-dinner, late in the night,” he adds.
What triggers emotional eating?
There could be several triggers for emotional eating, explains Ashwini NV, mental health professional and Director of Muktha Foundation and CEO of Flourish LIfeschool. She says that the most common trigger could be overwhelming stress.
“The release of cortisol can stimulate cravings for salty, sugary, and fried foods. This could lead to individuals unconsciously turning to food as a comforter when confronted with unmanageable stress and anxiety,” she explains.
Dr Ashwini also sees boredom and loneliness as triggers for emotional eating. “A person might be considering food as a way of distracting themselves from boredom or might be using food to provide fulfillment for the emotional void they are experiencing,” she states.
Work stress, family issues, academic issues, peer pressure, loneliness, boredom, etc, can all lead trigger emotional eating, adds Dr Satish.
Eating as a coping mechanism
Experts say that people experiencing some of the above-mentioned factors could be using emotional eating as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with unpleasant emotional states.
Interestingly, associating food with certain memories can also trigger emotional eating, says Ashwini. Especially when certain foods are associated with emotional security and nostalgia, she explains.
Meanwhile, Nandini says that the soothing effect certain foods can have on our emotional state offers a temporary escape from negative feelings.
“While it might provide immediate relief, this approach can lead to a problematic cycle, where emotions drive eating habits instead of hunger cues, potentially causing long-term physical and psychological implications,” she explains.
Interestingly, emotional eating, commonly perceived as a response solely triggered by emotions such as stress, sadness, or boredom, has a more complex and multifaceted nature than previously understood. Recent research suggests that factors beyond mere emotions play a crucial role in this behaviour.
Ashwini says that there could be certain non-emotional reasons contributing to what is termed “emotional eating”.
“One of the reasons could be nutritional deficiencies of a certain nature. This could lead to individuals craving and consuming certain foods without realising the reason. Other reasons could be peer pressure or social circumstances, where you are forced to consume something without the need coming from within,” she explains.
Ashwini adds that, sometimes, hormonal fluctuations, caused by the menstrual cycle for instance, can also contribute to emotional eating.
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Science behind emotional eating
Nandini says that there is psychological, physiological, and neurobiological factors involved. She says that emotional eating often stems from learned behaviours and conditioning.
“From a young age, many people are taught to associate food with comfort (being given a treat to soothe a fall). Over time, this can develop into a habit where food becomes a go-to method for dealing with emotional distress,” she explains.
Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol is known to increase appetite, particularly for high-calorie, high-fat, or sugary foods which provide quick energy and temporary pleasure.
These foods can stimulate the brain’s reward centres, releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine, which create feelings of pleasure and temporary relief from negative emotions. The brain’s reward system plays a significant role in emotional eating.
Aside from cortisol, other hormones like insulin and leptin (which regulate hunger and satiety) are also involved.
Stress and emotional turmoil can disrupt the balance of these hormones, leading to increased hunger and cravings.
How to identify, stop emotional eating
Ashwini says that the first step to addressing emotional eating would be to identify the trigger factors.
“Awareness of the reason for emotional eating is a must. This can be followed by learning healthy coping mechanisms to deal with unpleasant emotional states,” she explains.
Understanding these underlying factors is crucial for developing effective strategies to address emotional eating, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based approaches, and lifestyle changes that focus on developing healthier coping mechanisms.
Ashwini says that to learn these coping skills, one is encouraged to seek help from mental health professionals.
Some of the common practices to help deal with emotional eating include:
- Paying attention to what, why, and how we are eating.
- Practising mindful eating.
- Creating healthy routines, removing unhealthy foods from our immediate surroundings.
- Staying well hydrated.
- Being physically active
- Creating supportive social and relational networks.