The Psychology of Emotional Eating

Joel Eisenberg

Emotional eating can lead to a variety of health issues, including the possibility of obesity and associated side effects. Why then, is the tendency not formally considered a disorder?

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Boredom EatingTamas Pap, Unsplash

Author’s Note

This article is free of bias, and is based on conclusions of accredited medical organizations and mental health professionals including licensed psychiatrists and psychologists. Though I myself am a former mental health professional with training in Psychology, I am not a doctor and I offer no medical advice herein. Please contact a medical professional for all emotional eating-related issues. Sources for this article include the U.S. National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health), Medical News Today, and the American Psychological Association. All contributors to the preceding outlets are attributed by name in the body of this article.

Introduction

”Boredom eating,” as an example of emotional eating, is an actual term used to describe a specific tendency, or habit. Though not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the taxonomic and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), boredom eating is nonetheless a habitual tendency reported to impacts millions of individuals in the U.S.

See here for a 2015 report from the federal government’s U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health website. The report is entitled “Eaten Up by Boredom: Consuming Food to Escape Awareness of the Bored Self,” and was written by psychologists Andrew B. Moynihan, Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, Eric R. Igou, and Arnaud Wisman, physical fitness professional Alan E. Donnelly, and Dr. Jessie B. Mulcaire.

From the well-attributed piece, which addresses several studies: Research indicates that being bored affectively marks an appraised lack of meaning in the present situation and in life. We propose that state boredom increases eating in an attempt to distract from this experience, especially among people high in objective self-awareness. Three studies were conducted to investigate boredom’s effects on eating, both naturally occurring in a diary study and manipulated in two experiments.

As to the studies, the article explains: In Study 1, a week-long diary study showed that state boredom positively predicted calorie, fat, carbohydrate, and protein consumption. In Study 2, a high (vs. low) boredom task increased the desire to snack as opposed to eating something healthy, especially amongst those participants high in objective self-awareness. In addition, Study 3 demonstrated that among people high in objective self-awareness, high (vs. low) boredom increased the consumption of less healthy foods and the consumption of more exciting, healthy foods. However, this did not extend to unexciting, healthy food. Collectively, these novel findings signify the role of boredom in predicting maladaptive and adaptive eating behaviors as a function of the need to distant from the experience of boredom.

Mental health professionals have widely agreed with these findings, while some have delved still deeper.

Let us explore.

The Habit and Repercussions of Boredom Eating

Medical News Today, in an August, 2021 article entitled “16 Tips to Stop Eating Out of Boredom,” written by Louisa Richards and medically reviewed by Adrienne Seitz, MS, RD, LDN, advises to follow the following categories: A) Plan the Diet, B) Support Mental Health, C) Stay Mindful and Aware, D) Change the Environment, and E) Make New Interests. Additional pointers such as chewing gum are included, but beyond the scope of the above categories.

A cursory view of internet articles on the topic also points out depression-related issues when it comes to boredom eating. Interestingly, the distinction is frequently made that eating while depressed can be a side effect of being bored, as well as an issue onto its own. See here for another National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health article on the matter, this one brief, which in this instance differentiates eating habits based on mood.

The article is titled “Eating When Depressed, Anxious, Bored, or Happy: Are Emotional Eating Types Associated with Unique Psychological and Physical Health Correlates?” and has been written by mental and physical health professionals Abby Braden, Dara Musher-Eizenman, Tanya Watford, and Elizabeth Emley.

This piece places boredom eating, and eating based on depression, in the larger, general light of emotional eating. As excerpted: The majority of research on emotional eating has examined general emotional eating, to the exclusion of more distinct emotions such as boredom and positive emotions. The current study aimed to examine whether specific types of emotional eating (i.e., eating in response to depression (EE-D), anxiety/anger (EE-A), boredom (EE-B), and positive emotions (EE-P)) were related to a range of psychological (i.e., global psychological well-being, eating disorder symptoms, emotion regulation) and physical health variables.

The studies have been innumerable, and emotional eating is said to be suffered by a large percentage of Americans, according to the American Psychological Association, which states, among other statistics: Thirty-eight percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Half of these adults (49 percent) report engaging in these behaviors weekly or more. Thirty-three percent of adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say they do so because it helps distract them from stress.

Clearly, emotional eating is a widespread issue.

Conclusion

Though neither are listed as formal disorders as defined by the DSM-5, boredom eating and emotional eating — of which the former is a component — are oft-utilized phrases to describe habitual eating habits during times of boredom, feelings of depression, or other emotional states. Repercussions are reported as a tendency to overeat, which causes its own plethora of health issues.

I hope this article has helped take some of the mystery out of the emotional eating habit. Again, for anyone who suffers from emotional eating, mental health professionals largely encourage a doctor’s attention.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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