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.
Questions related to the Diagram
- How does stress alter our body chemistry?
- Why do we gravitate toward eating certain types of foods when under
- 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
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, et.al. 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
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.
- Become more familiar with which stressors trigger your
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Marano, HE. Stress and Eating. Psychology Today, Nov. 21, 2003
- Gibson, EL. Emotional influences on food choice: Sensory,
physiological and psychological pathways. Physiol Behav., Mar15, 2006
- Oliver G, Wardle J, Gibson EL. Stress and food choice: a laboratory
study. Psychosom Med. 2000;62(6):853-65.