Why do we really emotionally eat?

Steph Wagner MS, RDN

March 30, 2022

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Why do we really emotionally eat?

Emotional eating after bariatric surgery


Is it actual hunger? Is it emotional? …..it’s not that simple

You’ve heard the phrase “food is just fuel” and perhaps you’ve kicked yourself trying to believe that you should only eat fuel like a car needs gas.

Food is fuel, yes. Food is the carrier of the energy we need. This is all 100% true and quite an incredible process that keeps our body in homeostasis. The hormones that trigger us to eat for fuel are part of the Homeostatic System.

The thing is, the human body is even more complex than the incredible process of getting needed energy from food.

We have another amazing body system called the hedonic system. This system allows the food to not only fuel us but to be enjoyable. Without it, food would just be another chore like folding laundry!

You can read more about the homeostatic and hedonic system here, but it’s worth recapping on this blog before we move on to all the ways emotions lead us to the kitchen.

So many emotions, so many triggers

We have an incredible range of emotions and we experience many of them multiple times a day!

Our emotional state can impact our physical state. And our physical state can impact our emotional state.

That means, what we eat does make a difference in how we feel and how we feel makes a difference in how we eat.

This blog series all started with a survey to post-op bariatric surgery patients asking them what emotion most commonly drives them to eat.  Boredom and stress were at the top of the results.


pie chart graph emotional eating after bariatric surgery


Now that we have dug into the reasons why, we can also sort through new solutions on how to handle boredom and stress in the context of post-op bariatric life.

When we’re bored, dopamine has dipped and the brain is signaling a need for something enjoyable.

When we are stressed, cortisol is telling us to fuel up for the fight.

Because of the hedonic system and our complex range of emotions, we do have to work through the emotional side of eating. I believe the starting place is to understand the biology behind the emotion!

Powerful hormones and neurotransmitters drive us towards food

The hedonic system is very powerful biology, but remember it doesn’t work alone. The homeostatic system is the body’s basic needs including food, sleep and water. We must meet our body’s needs on the basic level in order to navigate the emotional side of ourselves.

If you are stressed and you haven’t eaten much all day, that hangry moment could get hairy.

blog emotional eating after bariatric surgery why do we eat emotionally?

This list of hormones and neurotransmitters (shown above) send powerful signals to us. Sometimes we confuse the signals and think the solution is to eat. That could be true but when we take a moment and sort through what we are feeling and what we need, we might find it wasn’t food that best solved the problem.

It doesn’t mean that we are weak for thinking of food at the ‘wrong time.’ These strong signals are telling us something. As we understand what is at the root of the issue, we can use intuition and knowledge to better provide our body what we need. Rest, a good conversation, some water, fresh air or food.

You’ll notice cortisol is connected to many of the emotions we experience and makes us crave foods high in sugar and fat. Why? Because this hormone is essential for our fight or flight system in our body. This important system is what helps us to react to situations of danger. Cortisol is a good thing but until we can recover from that moment, it will make food selections hard.

Taking deep breaths, stepping outside, getting anger out in a helpful way are all ways to engage the parasympathetic nervous system which is what tells our body we are not in danger and allows cortisol to come back down.

Find out more about each emotion and why it causes us to eat

My latest video course for members to Bariatric Food Coach is focused on emotional eating! Below is the final video of the video series that recaps the course.

I’m really excited about all of these lessons! Members also connect in our online community to further encourage each other in both the basic needs of the body, and the emotional triggers we all have to navigate.

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Click on the image below to read more on each emotion of the emotional eating blog series

image link to blog on stress eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on sadness, loneliness and depression eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on fatigue eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on boredom eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on anxious eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on anger eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coachimage link to blog on female cycle symptoms eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

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