I think it’s fair to say that emotional eating is often demonized. This is partly because it is seen as “out of control” eating rather than planned, orderly and “appropriate” eating, but also because emotional eating is associated with eating “unhealthy” food. Let’s face it, most people don’t eat salmon, quinoa, and broccoli emotionally.
Emotional eating is also blamed, unfairly or not, for weight gain. In fact, many books and even many nutritionists, therapists, and other health professionals assure their patients and clients that “When you control your emotional eating, you will lose weight.” Not only is this a false promise in most cases, but emotional eating can serve a legitimate purpose. Back to that in a moment.
First, I want to explore a fear I’ve witnessed in many self-described emotional eaters, in addition to concerns about being “out of control” or gaining weight. It is the fear that they are harming their health. Because, again, we don’t tend to eat salmon, quinoa, and broccoli emotionally.
There is some basis for this fear, because emotional eating is associated with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. A new study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology takes a closer look at this association, asking the question: does emotional eating harm cardiovascular health? The answer was yes… and no.
The study analyzed data from 1,109 initially healthy participants from the largest STANISLAS study in the Lorraine region of northeastern France. The researchers analyzed participants’ responses on an assessment of eating behavior, as well as various measures of cardiovascular damage.
They found that participants who scored high on emotional eating showed some signs of subclinical cardiovascular damage 13 years later. Specifically, diastolic dysfunction (stiffness in the heart) and carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity (stiffness in the arteries). Both can lead to heart disease. But before you think, “Yes, this is what will happen if you eat too much ‘unhealthy’ comfort food”, researchers found that stress, not the food itselfwas responsible for most of the related cardiovascular alterations.
In a press release, study author and Professor Nicolas Girerd, a cardiologist at the University Hospital of Nancy, France, said: “We might expect emotional eaters to consume high-calorie foods, which in turn would lead to cardiovascular problems, but this was not the case. One explanation is that we measure average calorie intake and emotional eaters may overeat when stressed and undereat at other times. This yo-yo pattern may have negative effects on the heart and blood vessels compared to steady food intake.” The study authors also pointed out that stress and depression — both of which can lead to emotional eating — are independently associated with high blood pressure and heart disease.
I would bet that everyone eats emotionally sometimes, whether it’s eating something comforting after everyone’s worst day or celebrating something happy at a favorite restaurant. But even when emotional eating goes deeper than that, it’s a gift because it can alert you that something is wrong. It’s like a canary in a coal mine in that regard. It’s also a gift because if you feel like Absolutely can’t handle your feelings and the food helps you feel better enough to keep going, so thank god you have this food.
Of course, if you have the skills and resources to do so, seeking help in learning other ways to deal with overwhelming emotions can provide more effective solutions. Again, this isn’t important because it cuts down on emotional eating, it’s important because it can help you improve your mental and emotional health, and by extension, your physical health.