Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Comfort eating and negative emotions

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Emotional eating:
How and why do people use eating
as a coping strategy to deal with negative emotions?
Parodyfilm.svg[Add link to multimedia presentation here Go to a 5 min. audiovisual overview of this chapter.]
Typical comfort food. (, 2014)

Overview[edit | edit source]

Do you find yourself reaching for the chocolate after a break up? Or sweets to get you through a stressful assignment? Good news, you’re human.

People cope with negative emotions in various ways (Evers, de Ridder & Adriaanse, 2009). Whether it be solving the emotion provoking situation itself, or deterring the focus to dealing with the emotional response created by the stimuli (Evers, de Ridder and Adriaanse, 2009)[grammar?]. Comfort eating, or emotional eating, is a commonly adopted coping mechanism for negative emotion, with research discovering a strong association betweenh disordered eating habits and poor skills towards the regulation of emotion (Mathes et al., (n.d.)). Want to break your binge eating habits? This chapter aims to identify the association between emotions and eating habits, and coping mechanisms when faced with negative emotions, particularly stress.

What is 'comfort' or 'emotional' eating?[edit | edit source]

Emotional eating, or comfort eating, can be defined as engaging in excessive food consumption as a coping strategy or tool to aid in dealing with negative emotions (Evers, de Ridder and Adriaanse, 2009). Furthermore, there is much emphasis placed on the difference between emotional eating versus eating out of hunger, or to satisfy physiological or biological needs. Emotional eating is a form of disordered eating; which results in an increase in food intake as a response to an undesired emotion (Evers, de Ridder and Adriaanse, 2009). Ice cream, pizza, chocolate, and cake, or other desired foods to your particular craving may provide a short term relief from the discomfort or pain in negative emotion, however in the long run can lead to weight gain and increasing negative emotions due to the over consumption of food (Evers, de Ridder and Adriaanse, 2009). Thus, emotional eating is a problem to the individual, as it acts as a short term solution or diversion to dealing with negative emotions, and creates problems in the long term, such as feelings of guilt or shame, and weight gain or obesity (Lafrance Robinson et al., 2014). For more insight, see Comfort food.

Case study[edit | edit source]

Emily, 20, is in her 3rd and final year at the University of Canberra, and about to graduate from primary teaching. Being so busy with work and university assignments, and trying to get a job, Emily often feels stressed and upset. She has trouble rationalising her emotions and attributing them to their causes however she doesn't have trouble diving for the chocolate and popcorn when things get too much.Emily is comfort or emotional eating, as a means of coping with her confusing emotions. Can you relate?

There's more than one hunger?[edit | edit source]

Comparison's sourced from (, 2014)

Emotional hunger[edit | edit source]

  • Comes on suddenly
  • Must be satisfied immediately
  • Craves specific foods
  • Isn’t satisfied on a full stomach
  • Triggers feelings of guilt and shame[factual?]

Physical hunger[edit | edit source]

  • Comes on gradually
  • Can wait
  • Open to many options of food
  • Stops when you’re full
  • Doesn’t make you feel guilty[factual?]

What are negative emotions?[edit | edit source]

Defining the exact number and what constitutes as an emotion is a field within cognitive psychology that has received a lot of attention and debacle, due to contradicting claims and hypothesis made by theorists (Salas, Radovic and Turnbull, 2012). However, it has been agreed that the debate lies within the level of specificity when defining what is accepted as it’s own emotion (Salas, Radovic and Turnbull, 2012). For simplicity sake, Ekman & Davidson (1994) proposed guidelines in which create an accepted criteria for defining an emotion, which states that emotions must:

  • Be innate, not learned through experience or socialisation
  • Be triggered from the same circumstances for all people
  • Expressed uniquely and distinctively
  • Evoke a distinctive and highly predictable physiological patterned response

By defining what constitutes as an emotion, we can then distinguish between negative and positive emotions. Furthermore, the six most commonly accepted basic emotions that follow these guidelines are sadness, disgust, anger, fear, joy and interest, commonly referred too as basic emotions (Ekman & Davidson, 2004).

Negative emotions are triggered by threat and harm (Ekman & Davidson 2004). Events that are considered to be threatening or harmful to an individual provoke the perceived negative emotions, which includes sadness, disgust, anger and fear (Ekman & Davidson, 2004). In summary, Ekman and Davidson’s guidelines and proposed emotions are the most widely accepted and utilised when defining the basic emotions. In defining a negative emotion, contrasts against those emotions on the spectrum perceived to be positive or happy emotions has proven effective (Ekman & Davidson, 2004)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. However, negative emotions have also been defined as emotions or feelings which inhibit your effectiveness or energy in a negative form, occurring as a response to internal or external stimuli (Gross, 1998).

Eating and emotion[edit | edit source]

Eating disorders serve as a strong evidence platform in terms of the association between emotion and disordered eating habits and tendencies (Harrington et al.,2006). Significant research has discovered a correlation between eating and emotion, with those diagnosed with clinical eating disorders exhibiting faults in their abilities to manage and cope with negative emotions (Harrington et al.,2006). In looking into disordered eating habits on the more severe spectrum and their association with emotion, it is possible to apply the findings to the general field of eating habits and its association with emotion, and develop an understanding of the underlying associations between eating habits and emotions.

Much of the underlying mechanisms of emotional eating have been revealed through research and findings of binge eating disorder, an eating disorder which is characterised by compulsive over eating, despite feeling full, in many cases triggered by negative emotions (Grilo, Masheb and Crosby, 2012). Research evidence has been obtained that suggests that negative affect (poor self concept) is a strong predictor of the onset of binge eating (Grilo, Masheb and Crosby, 2012).

Harrington et al. (2006) conducted a study that proved that exposure to trauma and inability to produce successful coping mechanisms is highly prevalent in eating disorders. They found approximately 30% of those suffering from an eating disorder could pinpoint an event which resulted in continuous negative emotions which resulted in disordered eating habits. This research finding shows a strong correlation between continuous negative emotions and disordered eating habits, however it must be noted that a traumatic experience may be subjective between individuals, thus hard to measure.

Stress has been an area of high emphasis in terms of disordered eating (Harrington et al., 2006). To appreciate the strong correlation between stress and other negative emotions and eating as a coping function, a consistent finding within research in this area has proven that women who are clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder generally perceive their lives to be more stressful and report difficulties in coping with stress, when compared to those who are not diagnosed (Harrington et al.,2006). This suggests that perception on one's emotion and perceived coping strategy is associated with their eating habits.

Klump et al. (2013) summarised that hormones, particularly during the menstrual cycle are strongly correlated with emotional eating. Focusing on estradiol and progesterone levels, it was concluded that high levels in both hormones typically predicted a rise in emotional eating habits within participants (Klump et al., 2013). Hormonal changes affect emotion during the menstrual cycle, and can have a correlation with a higher rate of emotional eating. Brain changes in grey matter were also reported, which correlate with a change in behaviour such as heightened food intake, thought to be caused by the effects of hormones on heightening emotional responses (Klump et al., 2013). Furthermore, this study suggests that heightened emotion and responses, even when caused by hormones, is correlated with increased food intake (Klump et al., 2013). This study, however, is only applicable to women, thus serves only as suggestion and cannot make any conclusive statements between the correlation of emotion and eating habits in general. Many theorists have hypothesised that the underlying causation for engaging in disordered eating habits, particularly binge eating and over consumption of food, is due to a lack of competence in adapting to emotion-provoking situations and the functions necessary to cope with them (Keel et al., 2007).

Heatherton and Baumeister (2005), have suggested that those who suffer from eating disorder are engaging in compulsive eating to achieve the following;

  • Eating to diminish negative emotions
  • Eating to increase positive emotions
  • Eating to distract oneself from negative emotions by shifting the focus to food consumption.

Theoretical framework[edit | edit source]

A primary cause of excessive food consumption, or ‘emotional eating’, is the inability to engage in the processes that lead to coping with negative emotions (Harrington et al., 2006). Thus, the individual seeks other mechanisms or strategies to suppress, replace or distract his/her self from these perceived emotions, leading to food (Harrington et al., 2006).

Regulation of emotion is the way one interprets and manages situations (Gross, 1998). Emotion regulation is the conscious or unconscious control of one’s own mood, emotion or affect (Gross, 1998). It is the individual's ability or non-ability to monitor, evaluate and modify their own emotional reactions (Gross, 1998). Various studies and research into disordered eating patterns have found a strong association between low emotion regulation skills and eating habits (Harrington et al., 2006). Emotional dysregulation can be defined as a difficulty in controlling the influence that emotion has on thought quality, interactions, which furthermore leads to an action or behaviour (Gross, 1998).

Emotion regulation reduces negative emotion through behavioural or mental control (Gross, 1998). Thus, when individuals struggle to manage, control or understand their own emotion or mood, this leads to trouble in identifying strategies to cope, proceeding to potentially impulsive behaviour to suppress, distract or replace the emotions (Gross, 1998). For more information, see Emotional self-regulation.

Gross' model of emotion regulation

These are the defined processes in which emotion is altered or modified in order to cope and manage the correct emotional or behavioural response to a situation or feeling.

Table 1.
Strategies within emotional regulation [factual?]

Strategy Mechanism
Situation selection Avoidance or approaching certain places, people, or objects in order to regulate emotions. Taking action to avoid or control an emotion before it occurs. For example, seeking out a friend whom you can have a cry too.
Situation modification Conscious effort to modify a situation to alter it’s emotional impact on the individual. For example, asking a neighbour to turn down their loud music to avoid frustration in ones self.
Attentional deployment The first process within the model that actually involves regulating emotion after or whilst it is being felt. Attentional deployment is associated with strategies aimed at coping or altering emotions when they occur. The defined strategies involved within the attentional deployment approach will generally be grouped among the four principles of distraction, concentration, and rumination of an emotion. Eg. Comfort eating.
Cognitive change Altering the the cognitive steps or evaluations in which form a perception on a given situation, which furthermore determines or creates an emotion, through tactics such as such as denial, isolation, intellectualisation and the tendency to interpret situations more positively.
Response modulation Occurs later in the emotion producing process, and refers to directly influencing the three general response components of the theory; behavioural, experiential, or physiological. can be perceived as approaches or efforts utilised to alter or modify emotions that have successfully been formed as reactions to situations. For example, eating to suppress or distract ones self from negative emotions.

Strategies and model courtesy of Gross (1998).

The transactional model of stress and coping

Through focusing on the interaction between a person and the environment, Lazarus and Folkman (1977) proposed the central thesis for the transactional model of stress and coping, is that primary appraisal, secondary appraisal, and coping strategies moderate the relationship between the outcome of an individual's stress outcomes and the stressor itself (Park and Folkman, 1997). Furthermore, the framework within the transactional model suggests that stress is caused by a perceived or true imbalance of demands placed on us and coping resources available (Park and Folkman, 1997). The model focuses on interpretation of the event rather than the environment itself (Park and Folkman, 1997).

Table 2 .
Stages within the transactional model[factual?]

Stage Mechanism
Primary appraisal Evaluation of the nature of the threat (situation faced), and determining whether it places stress or negative emotions upon ones self.
Secondary appraisal If we determine that the situation is stressful or causes negative emotions, we proceed onto the secondary appraisal stage. The secondary appraisal stage is essentially an evaluation of the coping options and resources we have access too.
Perceived coping mechanisms After these appraisals and evaluations have been made, if required, we proceed onto the coping stage. Moving onto the coping stage assumes that one feels competent in their control and resources towards the situation.

Strategies of the model courtesy of Park & Folkman (1997).

(YouTube, 2014)

Particular attention has been placed on emotion based coping within the coping mechanism component of the model (Park and Folkman, 1997). Emotional based coping is used when we are trying to decrease negative emotional impact that a situation places on us (Park and Folkman, 1997). It is a set of coping strategies generally used when we feel as though we have no control over the actual situation, thus resulting in emotion based processes such as avoiding the situation, distancing ourselves from the emotions, and acceptance of the situation (Park and Folkman, 1997). The overall concept of emotional based coping within the model is to focus on resolving and relieving the negative emotions rather than the actual situation, as the individual claims to have no control over it (Park and Folkman, 1997). With reference to Gross’ emotion regulation theory, people may engage in coping strategies at this stage, which then leads to emotional eating (Park and Folkman, 1997).

In relation to the theoretical framework discussed and the research findings, one can assume that the findings in the association between heightened hormone levels and its emotional impact on an individual furthermore having potency to lead to emotional eating has a high relevance to the emotion regulation theory, as emotional levels are heightened, thus by default dysregulated. In applying the theory to the research that suggests that perception on stress levels is different between those who suffer from an eating disorder and those who don't, it is possible that these individuals are lacking skills in emotional regulation. In believing that their lives are more stressful, they are struggling with the evaluation and perception of their emotions. In reference to the transactional model of stress and coping, it would appear they are hindered in making sufficient appraisals of a situation and their control over it, which furthermore leads them to struggle in adopting appropriate coping strategies, thus employing strategies in order to cope, leading to emotional eating.

But why do we turn to food?[edit | edit source]

Research has found that biology may also be partly to blame for your weight gain in coping with negative emotions (, 2014). High levels of the stress hormone cortisol, in combination with high levels of insulin (hormone associated with metabolism and energy source) can result in cravings for foods high in fat and sugar content (, 2014). There has also been research suggesting that ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” may also play a role in increased hunger when cortisol levels raise (, 2014). These findings lack sufficient evidence and research, however still act as a platform of suggestion and direction for further research (, 2014). So, next time your stressful assignment causes you to end up in the confectionery isle - blame biology!

What have you learned? Quiz time![edit | edit source]


1 Katie spent a lot of time and effort over the past week on an assignment, and when receiving the grade back she was very dissappointed. In an effort to distract herself from feeling down, she remembers the block of chocolate stashed in the cupboard, and immediately heads to the kitchen. What coping strategy from the model’s discussed is Katie using to deal with her negative emotion?

Situation modification.
Attentional deployment.
Secondary appraisal

2 What can we apply from the [which?]theory to eating as a coping mechanism?:

People use emotional eating to decrease negative emotion.
People use emotional eating to increase positive emotion.
People use emotional eating as a distraction from the emotion or situation itself.
All of the above.

3 According to the transactional model of stress and coping, what is the primary cause of stress?

Any negative emotion that causes discomfort.
When a person finds themselves in an imbalance between a situations demands and available coping resources.
Third year psychology units.
Completely dependent on biology and not environment.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

So, how and why do we use comfort eating as a means of coping with negative emotion?

Dysfunction in emotional regulation

Emotional regulation models and the transactional model of stress and coping suggest many opportunities for fallacy or incompetence to occur in the evaluation, processing, and application of one's emotion when attempting to cope. As the overall concept of emotion regulation is to decrease negative emotions with positive emotions[clarification needed], in the event of a dysfunction in regulating one’s emotion, strategies are adopted, through attentional deployment and response modulation in particular, to suppress, replace, or distract ones self from the negative emotion (Gross, 1998)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. In doing so, food acts as an aid in suppression or distraction of negative feeling, and increases positive emotions through desired tastes and consistency within the food.

Both [which?]models suggest, and are consistent within the research findings and applications to disordered eating habits, that coping mechanisms are incorrectly implemented, resulting in eating to increase positive emotions, decrease negative emotions, or distract ones self from the negative emotions or situation itself (Heatherton and Baumeister, 2005)[grammar?][Rewrite to improve clarity]}. In conclusion, in terms of how and why people use eating as a coping function, theorists suggest that eating as a coping mechanism to negative emotion (particularly stress) is due to a dysfunction or fallacy within the process of regulating emotion, which then leaves a person vulnerable to the inability to adopt or construe appropriate coping strategies to deal with the emotion felt (Gross, 1998).

Furthermore, theorists hypotheses[spelling?] on why people use eating as a comfort or coping mechanism correlate, if not replicate[explain?], structures within the discussed models and their strategies.

  • Eating to increase positive emotions - Response modulation.
  • Eating to decrease negative emotions - Response modulation.
  • Eating to distract ones self from the emotions - Attentional deployment.

Research also suggests that heightened levels and interactions in cortisol, the stress hormone, and ghrelin, the hunger hormone, can lead to cravings in foods high in sugar and fat content when emotionally aroused (, 2014).

To summarize, application and awareness of emotional regulation strategies and making correct appraisals of the situation and an individuals[grammar?] control could potentially lead to a decline in turning to food as a coping strategy, and in turn an increase an understanding one's own emotions and how to adopt correct coping strategies.

So how can I stop eating junk food when I’m upset or stressed?
  • Correct appraisal of the situation. In achieving the correct perception of the situation, and control you have, you are in a better position to look at ways to cope or deal with it.
  • Stop and think. Take a moment to think about your emotions, in order to avoid dysfunctional emotion regulation.
  • If you do think you need to distract yourself from the situation (eg. Attentional deployment), think of other ways to do so. For example; take a walk or talk to a friend.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source], (2014). File:Junk food portail.svg - Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014]., (2014). File:Junk food portail.svg - Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Ekman, P. (1992). Are there basic emotions?. Psychological Review, 99(3), 550-553. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.99.3.550

Evers, C., de Ridder, D. and Adriaanse, M. (2009). Assessing yourself as an emotional eater: Mission impossible?. Health Psychology, [online] 28(6), pp.717-725. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Grilo, C., Masheb, R. and Crosby, R. (2012). Predictors and moderators of response to cognitive behavioral therapy and medication for the treatment of binge eating disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, [online] 80(5), pp.897-906. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Gross, J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of general psychology, 2(3), p.271.

Harrington, E., Crowther, J., Payne Henrickson, H. and Mickelson, K. (2006). The relationships among trauma, stress, ethnicity, and binge eating. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(2), p.212., (2014). Why stress causes people to overeat - Harvard Health Publications. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Heatherton, T. and Baumeister, R. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological Bulletin, [online] 110(1), pp.86-108. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014]., (2014). Emotional Eating: How to Recognize and Stop Emotional Eating. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Keel, P., Baxter, M., Heatherton, T. and Joiner Jr, T. (2007). A 20-year longitudinal study of body weight, dieting, and eating disorder symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116(2), p.422.

Klump, K., Keel, P., Racine, S., Burt, S., Neale, M., Sisk, C., Boker, S. and Hu, J. (2013). The interactive effects of estrogen and progesterone on changes in emotional eating across the menstrual cycle. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, [online] 122(1), pp.131-137. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Lafrance Robinson, A., Kosmerly, S., Mansfield-Green, S. and Lafrance, G. (2014). Disordered eating behaviours in an undergraduate sample: Associations among gender, body mass index, and difficulties in emotion regulation. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, [online] 46(3), pp.320-326. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Park, C. and Folkman, S. (1997). Meaning in the context of stress and coping. Review of General Psychology, [online] 1(2), pp.115-144. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Salas, C., Radovic, D. and Turnbull, O. (2012). Inside-out: Comparing internally generated and externally generated basic emotions. Emotion, [online] 12(3), pp.568-578. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

Stice, E., Presnell, K. and Spangler, D. (2002). Risk factors for binge eating onset in adolescent girls: a 2-year prospective investigation. Health Psychology, 21(2), p.131.

YouTube, (2014). Lazarus & Folkman Transactional model of stress & coping - VCE U4 Psychology. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

External links[edit | edit source]