Eating Anxiety is Due to Emotions, not Hunger

Emotions get hungry too. However, beyond leading to excess weight and other health problems, eating anxiety is about feeding unhappiness, pain, and feelings of guilt. This is why you must know how to distinguish actual physiological hunger from emotional hunger.
Eating Anxiety is Due to Emotions, not Hunger
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Sadness also gets hungry, as does the stress and frustration of a bad day at work. People with eating anxiety aren’t always able to distinguish physiological hunger from emotional hunger. Unfortunately, it translates to health imbalances in terms of cholesterol, hypertension, excess weight, and other problems. However, there’s a more complex challenge beyond these organic problems.

It’s pain, dissatisfaction, guilt, and unhappiness. It’s true that there are nuances. Everyone’s been through that specific time when stress led to an inappropriate eating pattern. The pressure of exam season or a greater workload often drives people towards these types of behaviors.

However, there are other realities that often go unnoticed, and eating disorders often manifest in this way. At the end of the day, food is intimately conditioned by your state of mind and, sometimes, you enter a state you can’t easily get out of. Emotional hunger will never be satisfied with a plate of vegetables.

Yes, anxiety has a predilection for “junk food”. Thus, if you don’t fix what’s behind the anxiety itself, you’ll just reinforce and repeat the same behaviors over and over again. This is because you’ll think of food as the vehicle for emotional relief.

A person looking in the fridge.

The symptoms, causes, and coping strategies of eating anxiety

You have a disorder if your eating anxiety is constant. Moreover, a large part of the scientific studies on this subject shows that anxiety disorders are, in most cases, the etiological factor of this type of eating problem.

Research, such as this one conducted at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, recorded this relationship. Study author Dr. Corine Webb notes that many of these people have, on average, poor skills to handle those emotional states that drive compulsive hunger. Without a doubt, these are complex situations you should have more knowledge of.

How can you tell if you have it?

How would someone not know they’re eating due to anxiety? But as crazy as it may seem, it isn’t always that easy. This is because many people don’t know how to differentiate between physiological hunger and emotional hunger.

Here are some characteristics of the latter:

  • The urge to eat something appears suddenly, impulsively, and in the form of cravings.
  • Generally, these episodes of food intake occur when you’re alone.
  • The brain basically looks for foods that give you pleasure, the kind that can provide a stiff serotonin cocktail. Something like this can only happen by consuming “junk food”, which you may eat compulsively.
  • Emotional hunger arises with greater intensity just when you have many duties and are under pressure. For example, you should’ve started on that project you must present next week at work. Instead, you’ve sat on the couch with a couple of bags of chips, a pizza, and ice cream.
  • Thus, that kind of appetite isn’t physiological, and it’s still rarely satiated. You eat and eat until you’re full. However, in reality, the only thing you want is to feel less empty and to stop feeling anxious, so you try to deceive it by doing something gratifying.
  • Now, you must keep in mind that anxiety eating produces feelings of guilt. Thus, you must proceed to eat to calm the emotional craving but, far from feeling satisfied by doing so, your discomfort worsens.
  • This is because you feel bad about yourself for losing control. You know those foods are bad for you and feeling like you’ve harmed yourself is even more frustrating.

What’s the cause of eating anxiety?

Emotions are obviously the trigger of this anxiety. These moods are usually orchestrated by different situations, but the following are worth highlighting:

  • High self-demands.
  • The constant need to have everything under control. Although this may seem ironic, there’s an explanation: the need for everything to be in charge can exhaust you and suddenly leads to a rebound effect. Thus, your exhaustion seeks an escape valve through the intake of junk food.
  • Low self-esteem and thinking of foods as a reward mechanism.
  • Similarly, food is an escape mechanism during stressful times or simply when you’re having a bad day.
A woman longing for a pastry.

Strategies to reduce and control eating anxiety

In order to reduce eating anxiety, you must take one thing into account. You must consult a professional specialized in eating disorders if you’ve been dragging this behavior for a long time. Both psychologists and nutritionists can become your best allies in these types of situations.

However, if it’s something occasional and you’re are aware that your unhealthy habit only happens during certain times, then try to follow these guidelines.

  • Be clear that your sources of stress and anxiety drive you to eat impulsively. Manage them, focus on them from a different perspective, and take control over them.
  • Make changes in your routine and do something motivating that helps you channel anxiety. Do a rewarding activity.
  • Seek other types of rewards.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Plan what you’re going to eat and don’t leave room for improvisation.
  • Go to the supermarket with a detailed list of healthy foods. Remember this: “Anything you don’t throw into the shopping cart won’t be there for you to eat it at home”.
  • Learn to manage your emotions and practice relaxation techniques.

To conclude, most people have dealt with the emptiness of that hole in the stomach that’s rarely satiated, more than once. Your emotional hunger is always the product of a mind that demands attention, of the self-esteem you must repair and reinforce. Seek medical help as your physical and psychological health is important.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • CM Webb (2011) Eating-related anxiety in individuals with eating disorder.Eat Weight Disord. 2011 Dec; 16(4): e236–e241.
    doi: 10.1007/BF03327466
  • Fairburn, C.G. (1995). Overcoming Binge Eating. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Yanovski, S.Z. (1993). “Binge Eating Disorder: Current Knowledge and Future Directions”. Obesity Research.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.