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Emotions & Food : Are they related?

Authored by: Dr Swathy Elangovan

Diet is a means to promote mental health. Our emotions influence the food that we eat and vice versa. Brain is an organ with very high metabolic and nutrient demands. On an average our brain consumes twenty percent of our daily calories.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating appetite and sleep.. Our gut produces most of the serotonin, which is also known to mediate mood and inhibit pain.


People who are mentally ill eat according to their emotions. They reach out to foods to suppress their negative feelings. This is because negative emotions lead to an emotional void. It is commonly held that eating provides a false sense of fullness or satiety and helps to fill that void. Emotional eating is more common in women.

Ice-creams, pastries, pizza, hamburgers, fries, softdrinks are some of the comfort food for stressful people. A healthy diet promotes a healthy gut, which communicates with the brain through brain gut axis.

Large population studies have found that people who eat a lot of nutrient dense foods report less depression and increased levels of happiness. There are several causes of emotional eating eg. stress, family issues, economical issues, social influences, childhood habits.


When something bad happens in our lives ,that causes an urge to eat more. As a result you eat more ,and feel bad for having done such an act and the cycle continues .


 In physical hunger, 

  • There are no negative feelings about eating
  • You desire a variety of food groups
  • It develops slowly overtime
  • You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating.

In emotional hunger,

  • You feel guilty about eating
  • You crave only certain foods
  • The craving comes abruptly
  • You may bingeeat and still not feel a sensation of fullness.

To do things are

  • Manage your eating habit
  • Keep a food diary
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Have a positive outlook on life
  • Pause when your cravings hit, check in with yourself
  • Exercise daily
  • Connect with others
  • Make time for relaxation
  • Aim for 8hrs of sleep every night

When to seek a professional’s help?

If you have tried self-help options but you still can’t control emotional eating consider therapy with a mental health professional. Therapy can help you understand why you eat emotionally and learn coping skills.

The Bottom Line

Food helps ease emotions initially, but we need to address the feelings behind hunger to deal with stress , in the long term to have a healthy sustainable life.

Snippets from the Research so far

  • Lucas et al used several inflammatory biomarkers including CRP,TNF alpha receptor 2,IL 6 and data from food frequency questionnaires to derive an inflammatory dietary pattern from a sample of 12000 participants from the Nurses Health Study.
  • Participants who consumed a diet consistent with  inflammatory dietary pattern had statistically significant increased risk of developing depression overtime after adjusting for multiple confounders.
  • The inflammatory dietary pattern was high in sugar sweetened softdrinks, refined grains, red meat, diet soft drinks ,margarine and low in wine, coffee ,olive oil, green leafy vegetables and yellow vegetables.
  • Probiotic are micro organisms that positively influence health. Prebiotics are nondigestible fiber, which stimulate growth and activity of these beneficial micro organisms. The impact of microbiome on mental health is an emerging area of research.
  • Low Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor have been found in a number of mental disorders including major depressive disorder, PTSD, Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s Dementia etc.
  • To promote mental health and recovery from mental illness one should take a diet that includes adequate building blocks for monoamine neurotransmitters  , be rich in omega 3 fatty acids , have anti inflammatory properties  ,support a healthy microbiome.


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