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A Negative Feedback Loop: Emotional Eating

Reaching for something salty. Then something sweet. No wait, something crunchy that is sweet and salty. How about sour and then something spicy? Maybe I'll just have both.

We all have food preferences and tastes that we enjoy more than others. Certainly this adds and contributes to our individuality as people in this world. But, there are times where our food choices are made from an emotional stand point as opposed to a physical one. In short, we have hormones in our body that send messages to our brain to let us know if we are full or not. Sometimes, if we are eating quickly, on the run, or not in a mindful matter, we will not notice or "hear" the message that our body is sending us - that we're full. 

When we are eating because of a strong emotion as opposed to from a sense of hunger we can end up in a cycle of emotional eating. Some examples of negative emotions can be: stress, loneliness, anger, tired/bored, or sadness. Emotional eating occurs when a person is looking to feel better about an emotion instead of eating to satisfy physical hunger.

In my research and own personal experience I have found the main issue with emotional eating to be that the emotion is still there...even after the food has been consumed. This is a catch 22, because now not only is the emotion still there, it might be even worse, because you feel full of food that you didn't actually want to eat. Then, on top of whatever strong emotion was already present, feelings of guilt, shame, regret, or anger set in because food choices were made, but not out of a nutritional need.

Contrary to popular belief, I do not think that emotional eating is as simple as an issue of self-control. It runs deeper than that. When food is associated with any sort of reward or gratification, endorphins are released when the food is consumed and activates the reward and pleasure part of the brain. This is a big deal, simply put - it overrides the messages of being full and being hungry in the brain. Therefore, you - we - never get the message. Creating the vicious cycle of the negative feedback loop: person feels negative emotion > person eats comfort food to feel good > person eats more of comfort food because they feel guilt/shame/regret for eating the food in the first place. Then at this point the cycle has started and to break it can be an incredible challenge.

But how do we stop it? How do we end the emotional eating cycle?  

Step one is to address our emotions and identify triggers. They need to be heard, validated, and dealt with in the best way possible. Step two is to be forgiving of ourselves. Yes, we all make mistakes, but every day is a new opportunity, and we have the ability to train ourselves that every meal and every hour is also a new opportunity to make new choices and decisions that involve our brain not just our emotions. 

Step three is to be mindful and present in our eating. Mindfulness can be compared to a deepened awareness of our choices- thereby enabling not just an emotional decision to take place but a thought out, reasoned, and careful one. We are mindful when we cross the street and we should be mindful before, after, and while we eat. That is the only way to truly "hear" the message the hormones in our body are telling us. And we need the message! That's how we know if we are full and our needs are met or if we need more. 

Other solutions for breaking the cycle are:

  • Find another healthy way to cope with the negative feelings at hand. Call a friend, go for a walk, read a book, write about it, draw - whatever will work for you.
  • Count to ten before you eat the food. That will allow you to check in with your body if you're really physically hungry or if the feeling of hunger is coming from an emotional place.
  • Take a deep breath. Something really powerful about the body is that our breath feels as if it connects our body to our soul. Taking a set of three deep breaths can give you the head space and needed connection between your emotions and your mind. Give it a try!

Through our mindfulness and addressing of our mind, body, and soul I hope that we can truly nourish our neshamas in the best way possible. 


Singh, M. (2014). Mood, food, and obesity. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 925.

Yau, Y. H. C., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinologica, 38(3), 255–267.

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