Relationship Of Emotions And Food
Margaret E. Woltjer, Ph.D. | July 2006


The relationship between emotions and food is complex. There are many articles available today that discuss topics such as emotional eating, the effect of stress on appetite, the effect of stress on the body’s production of certain chemicals, and the relationship between obesity and depression. The overall picture can seem unclear and contradictory at times.

Our body is multifaceted and changes in response to ongoing environmental and internal demands. People tend to look at Body (chemistry) -- Food (nutritional components) --Emotions as a unidirectional relationship. In fact, any one of these three components can be a starting point, an end point, or a link within a chain reaction involving the other two parts. Let’s discuss the relationship of these components in terms of the impact of stress on the body and our emotional state and, subsequently, why we may choose certain foods in response to these emotions.

The diagram below picks the beginning-point “stress” and flows from there. It would have been just as valid to choose any other point of the diagram to begin, or even to have the components flow in the other direction. But “stress” is such a common problem that it makes sense to begin there.

Relationship Of Emotions And Food

Questions related to the Diagram

  • How does stress alter our body chemistry?
  • Why do we gravitate toward eating certain types of foods when under stress?
  • How well does food work to reduce stress?
  • What are some good ways to deal with stress?

How does stress alter our body chemistry?

When under stress, our body increases its production of a number of hormones. The particular hormone that is produced depends upon the degree of stress one encounters. Acute stress (e.g., life or death situations) stimulates the release of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) while chronic stress (e.g.., mourning, anxiety, and separation) tends to stimulate the release of corticotrophin (ACTH) and cortisol. Stress can also stimulate the release of other hormones, while at the same time inhibiting the release of others. The release of extra epinephrine and cortisol is intended to prepare our body for action. They act to shift our organ systems into overdrive, preparing us to dig in and tackle the situation or to flee from it as quickly as possible. Either response could result in preserving life or, at least, diminishing the threatening agent to the point where it no longer poses a danger.

If we think of the diagram above as representing a continuously flowing system that is subject to fluctuations due to internal and external agents, we begin to see that our emotions are affected by both body and brain chemistry, and vice versa. For example, when cortisol courses through the body in greater than normal amounts, metabolism is affected. Energy is shifted quickly from key storage areas to the muscles, readying them for action. We are all familiar with what we experience when we have “a close call”. But we also know that the symptoms associated with that flood of adrenaline will not last long. The entire system has a feedback loop built into it so that once the emergency is dealt with, the release of cortisol drops back to its normal rate. This is accomplished by cortisol itself, acting as its own shut-off messenger. When it reaches the brain it commands it to stop the body’s production of the hormone. But under conditions of chronic stress the system does not shut off. When we are under chronic stress cortisol production continues, leading us to feel anxious, hypervigilant, and depressed (1).

Why do we gravitate toward eating certain types of foods when under stress?

While the brain “instructs” the body to produce and release certain chemicals to deal with stress, these chemicals also have an affect on the mood center of the brain. In addition to the direct influence of brain chemistry on our emotional state, there are also physiological influences accounting for alterations in mood. These include the direct benefit we obtain from the nutritional content of food as well as the body’s access to its own energy storage sites (e.g., fat deposits). Because of its close proximity to the liver, abdominal fat can be more easily broken down as a source of energy. However, in times of chronic stress this source of energy cannot be broken down quickly enough to replace what is being utilized, so we tend to seek out a fast replacement in the form of fat- and sugar-laden foods. They replace our depleted energy reserves and, because they are usually highly palatable, they act as a “comfort food” as well. The problem is that while sweet, fatty foods low in protein may alleviate stress in some people by raising serotonin levels, the over-consumption of such foods often leads to abdominal obesity.

Among individuals, psychological characteristics that predict the tendency to choose comfort foods when stressed include neuroticism, depression, premenstrual dysphoria (PMS), and those who engage in emotional eating (2). This study also found that when meal size and food content were closer to the eater’s habit, expectations and needs, their mood was also more likely to be positively affected.

How well does food work to reduce stress?

Based upon the evidence so far, we know that food selection is determined in part by the presence of hormones and other neurotransmitters. Different patterns emerge depending on whether we encounter acute stress or prolonged stress. Food acts to restore energy reserves depleted as a result of chronic stress. Individuals differ from one another in terms of how they react to stress. For example, a study by Oliver, revealed that stress did not alter the overall amount of food eaten by the participants, but that stressed emotional eaters ate more of the sweet high-fat foods and a more energy-dense meal than unstressed and nonemotional eaters (3).

We know that if food selection were merely an immediate and necessary response to the body’s demands in times of stress (including ordinary hunger), we would have less difficulty with obesity. But individual food preferences are also based on food experiences and attitudes around eating. Overweight and obese individuals show a tendency to select the type of foods that contribute to and maintain these conditions. So while food plays an important role in reducing stress, it can also produce stress in the form of physiological and psychological complications. The most common ones we see are those arising from obesity and the type of health problems that so frequently accompany long-term reliance on inappropriate food choices.

There is evidence to suggest that some people respond to stress by selecting food for its chemical effects while others choose foods to meet emotional needs. Emotional eaters don’t necessarily eat greater quantities of food; they eat more foods that are higher in fat and in starch, sugar, and salt content. Information gleaned from surveys taken after 9/11 indicated that approximately 15% of Americans ate more comfort foods, while an additional 14% reported eating more sweets. Two months after the terrorist attacks, one in ten Americans had gained weight. This example of emotional eating demonstrates the power of stress in altering eating behavior.

What are some good ways to deal with stress?

The Mayo Clinic and the American Psychological Association have come up with several recommendations to help us deal with stress and emotional eating (4). The list below consolidates their coping tips.
  1. Become more familiar with which stressors trigger your emotional eating.
    Before you begin making any changes, try taking a couple of days to see if there is a pattern of when you are more likely to eat unhealthy foods. Jot down your observations.

  2. Try to wait 15 to 30 minutes before choosing food to deal with the stress.
    Sometimes our food craving passes if we wait. Often we become distracted and forget about our favorite comfort food.

  3. Look for “comfort” somewhere else.
    Many times other activities provide the same kind of shift in our chemistry that we get from food, and the benefit will last longer. For example, take a walk, start an activity, call a friend, go see a movie). Begin developing a habit of using these alternative resources by using them more regularly when not under stress.

  4. Notice where and when you are more likely to snack.
    For example, you may notice that you are more likely to eat comfort snacks when you get home from work or while watching TV. You could begin by changing what you eat and how much you eat at that time.

  5. Keep healthy snacks on hand (and remove unhealthy snacks from your home and workplace).
    Avoid grocery shopping when hungry or upset. Remove foods from your home that are high in fats and calories. Replace them with fresh fruit, vegetables (including fat-free dressings and dips) and unbuttered popcorn.

  6. Eat regularly and eat a healthy, balanced diet.
    One reason you may be relying on emotional eating habits to deal with stress is that your present diet does not include enough calories to meet your energy needs. Include foods from the basic food groups in your meals, emphasizing whole grains, vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources. Filling up on these basics helps you to feel fuller, longer.

  7. Try changing how and where you eat your meals.
    You will probably enjoy your food more, and eat less, if you sit down to eat and do not engage in other activities while eating.

  8. Develop a habit of asking yourself why you are about to eat.
    This strategy helps you to understand more about how your emotions affect your eating choices. It also helps you pay attention to eating in response to hunger vs. emotional needs.

  9. Exercise regularly.
    Exercise is a natural stress-reducer. Regular exercise also affects our rate of metabolism, and this continues to readjust itself as we become fitter and leaner. In addition to healthy eating, exercise does more to adjust our body chemistry and our response to stress than anything else we could do.

  10. Get adequate rest.
    We will be better equipped to fight stress both emotionally and physically if we are getting enough rest. As we rest or sleep, our body replenishes worn and dying cells with new ones (remember, a healthy diet means the replacement parts are a better quality). Also, rest is necessary for the body to filter out the toxins produced by our body during a stressful, busy day.

  1. Marano, HE. Stress and Eating. Psychology Today, Nov. 21, 2003
  2. Gibson, EL. Emotional influences on food choice: Sensory, physiological and psychological pathways. Physiol Behav., Mar15, 2006
  3. Oliver G, Wardle J, Gibson EL. Stress and food choice: a laboratory study. Psychosom Med. 2000;62(6):853-65.
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