Emotional eating affects about 40 percent of all people, with women being more susceptible than men. Emotional eating refers to eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than as a response to physical hunger. Many people eat out of stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, or depression. Some people may even be triggered to eat when they’re feeling happy.

Among women, emotional eating is most often triggered by stress and is often followed by feelings of guilt. Men are more likely to engage in emotional eating due to boredom or anxiety, and are less likely to experience guilt afterwards.

Uncontrolled emotional eating can lead to weight gain, especially in people who also experience low satiety, which is an inability to feel the sensation of fullness.

What causes emotional eating?

Emotional eating is driven by the brain’s reward system — a collection of pathways in the brain responsible for reward-related cognition and positive emotions. The reward system remembers when you enjoy certain foods and triggers you to crave them later during times of emotional stress. These trigger foods actually act like drugs by creating positive emotional responses and promoting further cravings.

Poor diet and malnutrition can also lead to emotional eating. If your body is lacking in certain nutrients, it will send a signal to the brain to eat. But most people don’t understand what their bodies need, and continue to reach for familiar foods to satisfy cravings. This can lead to a cycle of emotional eating, mood swings, and weight gain. This type of behavior can be especially damaging for people who eat a lot of foods that are high in sugar — their diet may be high in calories but lacking in nutrients, which will trigger them to continue eating.

Certain genetic variants that influence the brain’s reward system can also trigger emotional eating. People with a particular variant in the DRD2 gene are more likely to be emotional eaters. The DRD2 variant affects 20 percent of caucasians, 39 percent of Asians, and 42 percent of Africans.

Although it’s difficult to objectively measure someone’s hunger or preference for a particular food, behavioral scientists have developed ways to measure how motivated someone is to obtain and consume food — a measurement known as the reinforcing value of food. Studies have shown that food reinforcement is higher in individuals who are overweight, is associated with greater caloric intake, and can predict weight gain. A study conducted in 2007 identified the connection between the DRD2 variant and food reinforcement. Among people who were considered obese, those who had the DRD2 variant were more likely to make a greater effort to obtain their favorite foods and to eat more of them.

Eating behaviors associated with emotional eating

Everyone who engages in emotional eager has their own personal trigger foods, but in general, emotional eaters tend to prefer unhealthy food or junk food. When combined with low satiety, which is also influenced by genetics, emotional eating can easily turn a simple snack into destructive binge eating.

Warning signs for emotional eating include a sudden desire to eat, rather than the gradual hunger that is associated with true physical hunger. The urge to eat is also often preceded by stress or another uncomfortable emotion.

How to control emotional eating

If you know you’re susceptible to emotional eating, do not buy or keep trigger foods in the house. Buy healthy snacks and portion them in small bags or containers to make them more convenient.

Keeping portion sizes under control is important, especially if you are also genetically predisposed to low satiety.

When tempted to eat, ask yourself if you’re physically hungry or if you want to eat for another reason. If you’re truly hungry, eat something healthy. If you’re triggered to eat for another reason, attempt to identify the trigger and find other ways to address it. Keeping a food journal may help. For example, if you tend to eat due to stress, find other ways of coping with stress, such as exercising.

Research shows that focusing on future goals rather than staying focused on an immediate urge can help combat emotional eating.

You can find out if you’re genetically predisposed to emotional eating and low satiety by ordering your Vivaliti DNA report. Your 49-page genetic report examines more than 80 different genetic markers to give you unprecedented insight into your personal eating behaviors, nutritional needs, and more. Plus, you’ll receive actionable steps that help you address your problem areas and meet your health goals. Download a sample report to discover everything you get with Vivaliti DNA.