Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Eating and emotion

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Eating and emotion:
Do your emotions really affect your eating?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

What is emotional eating?
An emotional eater is defined as someone who overeats in response to a negative emotional experience (Denise, Ridder & Adriaanse, 2009; Koball et. al., 2011). Emotional eaters are often unaware of their overeating, and are unable to distinguish between hunger and emotional arousal.
How is emotional eating different to binge eating?
The difference between a binge eater and an emotional eater is the way they respond to stress. For an average non emotional eater, stressful situations have been proved to decrease appetite (Jones et. al., 2008), however, an emotional eater will not show this type of physiological response (van Strien, 2010), and turn to food as comfort or distraction.

Risk factors to overeating[edit | edit source]

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Comfort and Distraction?
There are certain kinds of moods that result in binge eating. Emotional eating often occurs to provide comfort and distraction from negative psychological distress (Evers, de Ridder & Marieke, 2010). Stice, Presnell & Spangler (2002) hypothesised that depression and low self esteem or inadequacy cause overeating, when compared with fear, anxiety and anger. Their study found that emotional eating predicted the onset of binge eating, which they suggested may be the reason that people decide to eat to change or improve their emotions. Negative emotions such as depression often precede the onset of binge eating (Tanofsky-Kraff et. al., 2007), however once the binge eating episode is over, there may be some feelings of guilt, another negative emotion, which may help maintain the overeating habit. Jones et. al. (2008) suggested that emotionally damaging situations, such as hurting someone’s feelings, increases emotional eating rather than physically threatening situations. Overweight youths who receive criticism or ridicule from parents are more likely to experience loss of control eating due to the negative emotion felt after the disapproval (Tanofsky-Kraff et. al., 2007) As well as depression and all other negative emotions, boredom is a reason for people to eat when not hungry. Koball et. al. (2011) studied boredom and emotional eating. Their study replicated many previous findings that they discussed and their results showed that boredom was one of the most common reasons for emotional eating. Johnson and Wardle (2005) suggested that individuals with depression were more likely to overeat than non depressive people, strengthening the argument that negative emotions cause overeating.

Dieting is seen to be a major risk factor for overeating. This is because restricting the intake of calories often becomes too much for someone, which often results in overindulging in foods high in fat. When dieting, an individual relies on cognitive control rather than the physiological cue of feeling hungry to distinguish when food is to be consumed (Stice, Presnell & Spangler, 2002). Restraint theory suggests that limiting dietary intake can cause individuals to both lose control by overeating (Ganley, 2002), but could also decrease ones ability to distinguish physiological cues of feeling hungry to psychological cues such as being bored or depressed (Johnson & Wardle, 2005). Emotional eating is caused by restriction of dietary intake, and when failing to stick to the strict rules of a low calorie diet, could cause psychological distress or end up with someone losing control of their restrictions, and breaking the food rules worse than before the diet began. Heatherton and Polivy (2002, as cited in Johnson & Wardle, 2005), suggests that failed dieting causes increases in psychological distress which, as mentioned previously, has been linked with causing overeating. One of the worst feelings experiences after straying from the restrictions of a diet is guilt. Feeling guilty after a decision that seemed correct at the time, can be extremely emotionally damaging for a person, especially when a person considers themselves to be perfectionists. Perfectionists hold themselves and others around them to very high standards in all aspects of their lives. If a perfectionist is restricting themselves to stringent dietary constraints, the disappointment they have for themselves if the restrictions aren’t maintained could be excessive and lead to eating disorders. Sherry and Hall (2009) studies whether perfectionism plays a role in affecting binge eating, which they found, had a positive relationship. During a bout of dieting and restricting calorie intake, Johnson and Wardle (2005) found links with increased stress.


When a person is stressed, regular routine and habit may change due to the extra strain in their life. What causes stress is different for everyone, whether for psychological, biological or external reasons, but it’s the way that a person deals with their stress that’s important. Psychometric theory suggests that when stress increases, appetite decreases (Jones et. al., 2008), however this isn’t always the case. In some cases, individuals who are considered emotional eaters are unable to distinguish the difference between hunger and negative emotions, so when a person experiences any negative emotions, stress included, there is the potential for overeating (Evers, de Ridder & Marieke, 2010). Jones et. al. (2008) suggested that a person’s stress may adversely affect their health. They found that stress causes women to choose foods to snack on that are higher in energy and fat, because they are often seen as easy and quick options for a meal. Not only does snacking increase during stressful times in a persons life, Jones et. al. (2008) found in their study that a decrease in structured main meals during the day occurs. They suggest that the disruption in food intake habits causes the more frequent snacking, which decreases a persons ability to determine when they are actually hungry.

Eating disorders
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Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
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Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a psychological disorder where by a person participates in episodes of binge eating on a regular basis. They often feel out of control when eating and use food as an outlet, as a distraction, or to provide comfort when feelings of negative emotions are present. To be diagnosed with BED you need to fall within specific guidelines made by the Forth Edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The DSM-IV suggests that a person with BED has impaired control or obvious distress over eating, with no compensatory behaviours that follow it such as self induced vomiting, excessive exercise or fasting, which are characteristics of other types of eating disorders. It is noted in the DSM-IV that someone with BED will begin to eat in private due to embarrassment over the amount being consumed, as well as the negative emotions such as guilt or depression that are felt after a binge. The following link is a video of a person who suffered from BED from the age of 14, and being at her worst in college. She now speaks out to make the community aware of her problems with BED, in a hope that others who feel the same will seek help. Parodyfilm.svg Binge Eating Disorder Video (10 min., video)

Bulimia Nervosa

In contrast with BED, Bulimia Nervosa provides compensatory methods after the initial binge episode to prevent weight gain. These methods may include self induced vomiting, laxative abuse or misuse, use of diuretics, excessive exercise or fasting. An individual with Bulimia Nervosa may harbour one, some or all of these methods in an effort not to gain weight after a binge.

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This quiz has no right or wrong answer. It has purely been designed to determine how individuals see themselves in regards to their control over food. When completing this quiz, answer according to which option best applies to you. On completion of this quiz, your score is derived by the amount of questions you answer that put you in the 'out of control' category. A higher score may indicate greater impaired control over eating choices.

1 How do you feel when you look into the mirror?

I frequently think about my weight and I feel guilty when I eat something bad.
I think about my appearance, but it doesn't make me feel unhappy.
I worry about my appearance, and I often feel disappointed.
I don't think about my size or weight.

2 When choosing food to eat:

I feel good because I always choose something healthy and nutritious.
I sometimes choose the food I crave, which is generally food high in fat and sugar.
I feel like a failure because I have chosen the wrong food, so to mask the guilt I eat more.
I am usually pretty good at choosing healthy food, but I have bad days.

3 When you're bored, how likely are you to turn to food?

I always eat when I'm bored, but distract myself so I don't think about eating.
I find a way to occupy myself other than using food.
I tend to graze continuously throughout the day when I have nothing better to do.
I eat when I'm bored occasionally, however I wouldn't consider it a habit.

4 After eating too much

I don't feel guilty or regretful at all.
I may feel sick, but it doesn't last long.
I always feel so guilty that I often engage in compensatory behaviour such as vomiting or excessive exercise.
I sometimes feel regret for overindulging.

5 When dieting

I am pretty strict, but I have a few bad days.
I never stray, it's a lifestyle choice, not a diet.
I have a binge every now and then, but I will be good for the rest of the week.
I feel like a failure when I have strayed, and often end up eating more.

6 After a meal I feel

like I've eaten too much and i feel uncomfortably sick.
like I am content and I feel satisfied.
like I could eat more, but I don't need to.
like I've eaten a bit too much, but I feel ok.

7 When I have an impulse to eat

I can stop after I have had enough.
Sometimes I feel an urge to eat that I cannot control.
I have no ability to control the urges I have to eat and end up eating too much.
I often have urges to eat too much, but I find it easy to control myself.

8 Which of the following most applies to you

I only ever eat when I'm by myself, because I feel like I won't be able to control myself and get embarrassed.
I eat the same amount when I'm with other people and when I'm by myself.
I only eat a small amount in front of people because I feel embarrassed.
I often don't order the food I'd really like to eat when with other people because I am aware that I have a few problems with food choices.

9 How often do you eat

I have three square meals a day plus a snack or two.
Three square meals, nothing more.
I eat many different meals per day, but may also have days where I skip some too.
I tend to graze on small meals throughout the day.

10 Are there different circumstances in life when your appetite changes?

If I exercise more than usual, sometimes I snack a bit more during the day.
Food makes me feel better, or forget about the problems I am having, whether I am stressed or upset about something.
I eat similar amounts of food daily, my daily calorie intake is generally very stable.
I like structure, I eat the same thing every day.

If you scored between 7-10
A score between 7 and 10 suggests that you may have little control over what you eat. You may be considered a binge eater, or someone who easily overindulges in food to compensate for negative emotions. Eating when bored, or when feeling sad or depressed may be a sign that you use food as a comfort mechanism. Continue to monitor your food choices, try not to turn bad choices into bad habits!
If you scored between 4-6
A score between 4 and 6 suggests that you occasionally may lose control over your eating habits, but generally are able to limit the indulges. If you tend to use food as a cure for boredom, try to find some new and exciting hobbies to engage in, to prevent you from turning to the pantry. Limit your snacking to healthy and nutritious snacks, once or twice a day. Be careful not to fall into any worse habits and increase your score above 6.
If you scored between 0-3
Congratulations, you have great control over your urges to eat bad food. You stick to healthy and nutritious foods, and don't turn to food as a means of comfort or distraction. You love structure in your diet and maintain a level amount of daily calories taken per day. Well done, the strength you show in controlling your food intake is harder than you think!

Note: This quiz was adapted from the Binge Eating Scale. The test has 16 questions and gives an estimate of where you lie on the Binge Eating Scale. To take the original questionnaire, see external links.

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Overeating is a response overeaters use as a means of comfort and distraction. Feelings of depression, low self esteem and inadequacy are all factors that may cause overeating. Emotionally damaging situations, such as hurting a person’s feelings, increases emotional eating more than physically threatening situations. Children who are overweight often receive ridicule or criticism from parents may turn to emotional eating in an attempt to feel better about themselves.

Dieting is a major risk factor for overeating. When a person restricts their calorie intake, it often results in overindulging in foods high in fat. The reason dieting is often unsuccessful is that rather than physiological cues of hunger to determine when to eat, cognitive control is required to determine when food is allowed to be eaten. Overindulging often occurs due to the feelings of failure felt by straying from the strict dietary guidelines.

Stress disrupts regular routine and habit, which causes extra strain and pressure on a person’s life. Causes of stress are different for everyone, however dealing with stress explains alot about a person. The average person who does not eat for emotional support has a decreased appetite when stress is increased. Emotional eaters are unable to distinguish the difference between hunger and negative emotional arousal, which means that stress is an risk factor for emotional eating.

Emotional eaters are not clinically diagnosed as having eating disorders such as BED or Bulimia Nervosa, however the bad choices that emotional eaters make can easily turn into bad habits, and eventually into eating disorders.

In regards to eating, our emotions play a huge role. Not only is emotional eating caused by depressive moods, boredom, stress and dieting, the episode of emotional eating itself causes psychological distress, along side feelings of guilt and regret. The act of emotional eating turns into a huge spiral of bad choices and negative feelings. A person often feels too embarrassed to share their problems with other people, and end up eating in secret. Doctors are always available to help in situations like these, however admitting to yourself that there is a problem is usually half of the battle.

See also
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American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR (4th ed.). Arlington: Author.

Evers, C., de Ridder, T. D. & Adriaanse, M. A. (2010) Adequately Predicting emotional Eating With Self-Reports: Not as Easy as Pie, Journal of Health Psychology, 29: 344-345

Ganley, R. M. (1992) Family Patterns in Obesity: With Consideration of Emotional Eating and Restraint, Journal of Family Systems Medicine, 10: 181-199

Gormally, J. (1982) The assessment of binge eating severity among obese persons. Addictive Behaviors

Johnson, F. & Wardle, J. (2005) Dietary Restraint, Body Dissatisfaction, and Psychological Distress: A Prospective Analysis, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114: 119-125

Koball, A. M., Meers, M. R., Storfer-Isser, A. & Musher-Eizenman, D. R. (2011) Eating When Bored: Revision of the Emotional Eating Scale With a Focus on Boredom, Journal of Health Psychology. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1037/a0025893

O’Connor, D. B., Jones, F., Conner, M., McMillan, B. & Ferguson, E. (2008) Effects of Daily Hassles and Eating Style on Eating Behaviour, Journal of Health Psychology, 27: 820-831

Sherry, S. B. & Hall, P. A. (2009) The Perfectionism Model of Binge Eating: Tests of an Integrative Model, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96: 690-709

Stice, E., Presnell, K. & Spangler, D. (2002) Risk Factors for Binge Eating Onset in Adolescent Girls: A 2-Year Prospective Investigation, Journal of Health Psychology, 21: 131-138

Tanofsky-Kraff, M., Goossens, L., Eddy, K. T., Ringham, R., Goldschmidt, A., Yanovski, S. Z., Braet, C., Marcus, M. D., Wilfley, D. E. & Olsen, C. (2007) A Multisite Investigation of Binge Eating Behaviours in Childern and Adolescents, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75: 901-913.

van Strien, T. (2010) Predicting Distress-Induced Eating With Self-Reports: Mission Impossible or a Piece of Cake? Journal of Health Psychology, 29: 343

External links[edit | edit source]