Emotional Eating Syndrome


Most of us have had painful, emotional experiences and have used a bag of chips, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a sleeve of Oreos to feed a feeling.  When life is bitter we seek sweet…Why?

The “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin serves as a mood enhancer by regulating stressful emotions and reducing depressions. To make serotonin the brain uses the protein tryptophan. But here is the twist… it is carbohydrate rich foods that enable tryptophan to easily enter the brain and be made into serotonin.  So carbohydrates are natures Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil … And indeed make us feel better.

emotional eating


Emotional eating can become dysfunctional when individuals have chronic stressors and use food to self-medicate and cope. Many individuals burdened with weight problems and restrictive diet histories will seek “forbidden” comfort foods as a temporary escape from painful emotions.  After the immediate relief from eating wears off, the emotions that they were trying to escape from return, plus they now feel guilty about their eating. This then triggers the need for more comfort food and thus the development of  the emotional eating syndrome.


Carbohydrates also can improve mood and relieve stress by stimulating dopamine release, another brain “feel good” neurotransmitter. Since dopamine is involved in brain pathways related to addictive drugs, some hypothesize that comfort foods may have addictive potential that can further fuel the emotional eating syndrome.


From cradle to casket we typically celebrate and mourn with food. Prudent bariatric counseling is to communicate that emotional eating is a perfectly normal, science based, human coping behavior that can become dysfunctional when combined with guilt and shame. The chronic stress of living with the stigma of obesity and societal “forbidden food” rules can exacerbate guilt/shame emotional eating.

Asking patients to recognize the stressors (events or people) that trigger negative emotions and developing alternative coping skills is part of the solution. Asking patients to abstain from carbohydrates may actually “feed the problem.”

How Carbohydrates Affect the Brain

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