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  • Writer's pictureDr. Elena Duong

To Ice Cream or Not?

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

During this pandemic, have you noticed yourself reaching more for ice cream, chips, or other comforting foods? If you have, you are not alone. Many have reported an increase in food consumption not related to physical hunger. People also have been turning to stress-baking/cooking, which I have definitely done myself. As a result of the stress-baking/cooking, there is more food around for us to consume when stressed as well.

What is Emotional Eating?

If you are eating to cope with your emotions or when you feel bored, you are emotionally eating. You are not eating to satiate a bodily/physical hunger. You are not physically hungry, but eating anyways. It is not inherently a “bad” thing. If we emotionally eat every now and then, it usually does not negatively affect us. It becomes a problem when it is our only or main coping mechanism when distressed.

Emotional eating is completely different from people restricting their calories all day and then suddenly eating more energy-dense foods. High sugar and/or energy-dense food items are the fastest way your body can re-energize itself since the energy/food restriction sends your body into a starvation mode. This is your body trying to restore nutritional balance to your internal system since your body is physically hungry. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend reading Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon.

Why Do We Emotionally Eat?

Emotionally eating certain foods, such as carbohydrates and fatty food, is comforting and soothing, which makes you feel good in the short-term. According to Dr. Bacon (2010), this happens because carbohydrates increase the ability of tryptophan, an amino acid, to travel to the brain to convert into serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has been shown to stabilize mood, help with sleep, and reduce risk of moods concerns like depression. Fats can help with the reduction of stress hormone release, resulting in a calmer state. But, eating these types of food in excess does not help our overall health.

The non-biological reason we emotionally eat is to cope. It likely has been our method of coping from a young age. Children cope, in the best way they can, with the resources around them. Some use food, and some use other mechanisms, including substances. Oftentimes, children learn to cope by food since they were never taught how to cope with their emotions in healthy ways, which transfers over to adulthood. These days, people use food to cope with a multitude of concerns, including family stress, societal pressures/expectations, trauma, and more.

How to Challenge Emotional Eating

If you want to challenge your emotional eating, be aware it is difficult and can take a lot of work to rewire your brain to respond differently. It actually takes about 3 weeks to reset your taste buds since the more you eat something, the more you are wired to crave it.

  1. Identify your triggers when you are aware of your emotional eating

    1. It could be stress, emotions, boredom, life events, or another trigger

    2. One way is to keep a diary of the times you emotionally ate

  2. Try out other coping skills to replace emotional eating

    1. Seek support, journal, take a walk, engage in a hobby, or other activities you enjoy doing

  3. Take a break or pause

    1. Think about how you will feel minutes from now. What about in a few hours, days, or weeks? How would you feel if you choose to engage in emotional eating or choose not to engage in emotional eating?

      1. This is like a future pros vs cons list

Emotional hunger cannot be fully satisfied by physical foods. You will likely feel good in the short-term, but the cycle of emotional eating will continue. People who emotionally eat as their only coping skill usually feel worse than they did before the emotional eating episode. Not all emotional eating is maladaptive. It depends on the individual and their pattern of behaviors.

If you are struggling with emotional eating and want therapeutic services with us, feel free to reach out to us through our site.

Stay tuned. The next topic is "Weight Stigma."


Written by Elena Duong, Psy.D.

Edited by Susanna La, Ph.D.

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