Emotional Eating: Why Do I Eat to Feel Happy?

Have you ever wondered how such a biological function as eating became so entangled with emotions? Why so many people equate food with feeling good or feeling better? We posed these questions to Susan Albers, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center, where she specializes in eating issues and weight loss. According to Albers—whose latest book, Eat.Q. Unlock the Weight-Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence (Harper, 2013), came out in July—although the associations of food with positive feelings most often begin in childhood, changing them isn't as hard as dieting. She shares with us the lowdown on emotional eating and why signing off from those yoyo diets is the first step to embarking on a healthy relationship with what's on your plate.

Emotional Eating Begins Early

Emotional eating patterns, unfortunately, often develop very early in life—a parent who offers a cookie when you fall down and skin your knee, or a caregiver who rewards you with ice cream for a job well done on your report card. "Well-meaning parents often link comfort and soothing with food," Albers says. She also points to the media as playing a significant hand in fostering emotional eating. "Look closely at media ads. They often promise emotional benefits of eating from their products (for example, chocolate is often paired with the word bliss). These ads set an expectancy of how we 'should' feel when we eat. We are wooed by the promise of how a particular food will make us feel."

As adults, it's particularly easy for mothers to fall into the habit of nurturing themselves with food. Often the primary caregivers, many moms feel guilty if they, say, get a sitter so that they can go to the gym or get a massage. So instead, after the kids are asleep and they've been going all day, it's all too easy to reward themselves with food.

But it isn't just women grabbing a pint of ice cream for a quick feel-good fix. "In the past ten years of working with emotional eaters, I've noticed in my own practice an increase in the number of men who struggle with emotional eating," Albers reports. A flip through a men's health magazine will quickly attest that men struggle with body image and losing weight perhaps as much as women.

What Is Emotional Eating?

One of the hallmarks of emotional eating is wanting something specific to quell your cravings. You don't just want something to eat; you want BBQ potato chips and nothing else will do, explains Albers. "Emotional eating sneaks up on you out of the blue and often wants something right now. True hunger grows gradually in intensity and is accompanied by a rumbling stomach or lower energy. I have to admit that distinguishing the difference between emotional and physical hunger is no easy task and can be downright frustrating.

"Many people will tell me that they really have to stop in their tracks and think about it. It's not their fault—our environment has been clever in warping our natural system to know the difference. It stems from years of getting mixed signals about how to respond to your hunger (for example, a friend who encourages you to have dessert with her even though you aren't really hungry, or a parent who comforts you with cookies). If this sounds like you, don't worry; it is something you can change," says Albers.

Ditching Diets

According to Albers, the first step for everyone wanting to curtail emotional eating is to stop the all-or-nothing diet mentality. "Dieting is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. All-or-nothing models for weight loss have repeatedly been shown in clinical research to be ineffective. Anyone who's tried it knows that it is a model that quickly leads to frustration and hopping on and off a diet," she says.

Many people, though, feel that without the imposed rules of a diet, not only would they not lose weight but they would gain it over time. However, experts are finding that for enduring healthy eating patterns, you need to uncover emotional attachments to food and the habits around them. "There are very inventive ways you can still eat the foods you love—without overeating them," Albers points out.

Here, Albers offers eight ways to avoid turning to food for a mood boost.