Why Do We Overeat?

Why Do We Overeat?

It is common for some people to find comfort in food when dealing with negative feelings. This is sometimes called emotional eating or comfort eating. Emotional eating is described as a tendency to eat in response to negative emotions such as depression, stress, anxiety, trauma, etc. 

Negative Emotions and Food

Depression, stress, anxiety, or trauma may lead to a feeling of emptiness (an emotional void).  Food may be a way to “fill the void,” and create a feeling of ”wholeness.” However, the feeling doesn’t last - i.e the food creates “false wholeness.”

Comfort foods,” the type of foods that are often selected during these times, tend to be energy-dense. They may be high in refined carbohydrates (especially sugar) and fat. These foods cause a release of serotonin, a brain chemical that enhances mood. 

Although this may feel good in the short-term, overeating may increase negative feelings like guilt or shame, while also not addressing the original feelings at their core. Plus, consistently eating these foods may increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health problems in the long term.

What may result? Something called The Emotional Eating Cycle.

As you can see in the graphic, the emotional eating cycle starts with an event that causes negative feelings. From there, you have a strong urge to eat and you actually overeat. When you overeat, you feel guilty and powerless. This continues the next time you feel depressed, anxious, or stressed.

What You Can Do

Avoid Foods that Stimulate Your Appetite

Many comfort foods are high in sugar and other simple carbohydrates; and unhealthy fats. Some examples of snack foods are baked goods, ice cream, cookies, pretzels, chips, etc. These foods not only increase inflammation in the body, but also cause blood sugar to dramatically rise and fall (spike). Spikes in blood sugar can contribute to feelings of anxiety and increase cravings for more food. 

These foods also activate the brain’s reward center, making it difficult to stop eating or to have “just one bite.”

If you are craving these types of comfort food, instead try foods with healthy protein, fiber, and healthy fats. These foods are more filling and help to prevent spikes in blood sugar. Some healthy snacks you might consider are:

  • Air-popped popcorn (can top with nutritional yeast, which has a taste similar to cheese)

  • Apple slices with unsweetened peanut butter

  • Avocado

  • Carrots with hummus

  • Cheese crisps (low-carb snack)

  • Dark chocolate (70% cacao) and a  small handful of raw nuts

  • Edamame, cooked

  • Egg, hard-boiled

  • Kale chips (Use a simple recipe with kale leaves, olive oil, and seasoning)

  • Olives

  • Pickles

  • Seaweed crisps (low-carb snack food)

  • Unsweetened Greek yogurt with berries

Manage your hunger

When feelings of hunger, or what seems like hunger, arise, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if it’s related to negative feelings and a stressful event. To help with emotion-related hunger, try the following three steps:

  • Rehydrate: It is relatively common for people to confuse thirst and hunger. If you’ve recently had a meal or snack that had protein, fat and fiber and are still not feeling satisfied, try drinking a glass of water, sparkling water or unsweetened tea. 

  • Refocus: If you find yourself hungry an hour or so after eating a nourishing meal, try to redirect your focus. Do something that distracts you from thinking about food like calling a friend, going for a walk, or journaling.

  • Relax:  Cravings are normal, however, they occur much less when you are eating a Mediterranean-style diet low in refined carbohydrates. Taking the time to recognize what’s behind these hunger-like feelings is key. You don’t have to be perfect. Some days, you may just want to eat a bit more than others - that’s completely normal.

Be kind to yourself, and just do your best to nourish your body when you’re truly hungry to be healthy and feel satisfied. The goal is to enjoy the eating experience, and stop when you’re feeling full.

You can also apply other techniques to help manage hunger and negative emotions, in general. We provide some of the most effective ones. For example, mindfulness practices, writing and journaling, and changing your thinking patterns (cognitive restructuring).


Your Goodpath program provides emotional and nutritional support. Talk with your coach if you need help with overeating.