Transform Emotional Eating into Nourishing Your Emotions

For many, negative feelings, such as anxiety and depression, lead to out-of-control emotional eating…and ensuing weight gain. Knowing which foods can bust the blues, without weight gain, could reduce the odds of emotional eating episodes. Meet the foods that may help.

By Deborah Kesten, Founder, Whole Person Integrative Eating®

For Alison, stress-related overeating episodes—called Emotional Eating—often start after work, especially when she’s on deadline with a large project. First, she visits her local supermarket to buy an oversized bag of potato chips, a pint of her favorite ice cream, and a couple of boxes of her favorite cookies. Then she heads home, changes into comfortable clothes, and turns on the TV. Settling into bed surrounded by her favorite comfort foods—and sometimes, a glass of red wine—Alison begins what she describes as “zoning out”—eating everything, quickly and mindlessly, until she feels calmer—often to the point of falling in and out of sleep well before bedtime.

All the while, Alison remains vaguely anxious and distressed about her workload, and dependent on food to manage her darker moods. And she’s concerned her stress eating is making and keeping her overweight.

A big bag of potato chips. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Chocolate chip cookies. Some call it “comfort food”; others say it’s ‘food as friend’. However you phrase it, turning to food to soothe unpleasant feelings—from depression and anxiety to anger, loneliness, even fatigue—is the key cause of Emotional Eating. As a matter of fact, research I did with behavioral scientist Larry Scherwitz, PhD—on our science-backed Whole Person Integrative Eating® program for weight loss—revealed that eating to cope with negative feelings is the #1 reason we overeat, and the key cause of weight gain.

The New Science of ‘Food and Feelings’

Psychiatrists call it Nutritional Psychiatry. Psychologists say its Nutritional Psychology. Others describe the food-and-feeling connection as Cognitive Nutrition. I use the term Psychological Nutrition to identify the growing specialty that investigates how the food we eat impacts how we feel emotionally. Indeed, it is a growing medical specialty that investigates the link between food we eat and emotions; and conversely, how thoughts and feelings often affect food choices.

What the new science of ‘food and mood’ teaches us is this: What you eat each day can lead to feel-good feelings and to mental and emotional well-being; or it can up the odds of negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety. The choice is yours.

Origins of the Food-Mood Connection

The idea that the food you eat can actually impact your emotions was given the scientific stamp of approval in the 1970s when Judith Wurtman, PhD, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discovered what many of us know intuitively: what you eat affects your mind and mood, your tendency to pile on pounds, even your quality of life.

When Wurtman and her husband, Richard Wurtman, MD, also a researcher at MIT, first linked food with mood, it was based on their discovery that both naturally occurring sugar and starch in carbohydrate foods (such as potatoes) as well as sugar added to food products (such as cookies and cake) elevate a powerful, naturally occurring chemical in your brain called serotonin.

Even more fascinating was their discovery about the impact serotonin and other neurotransmitters (substances that pass information from cell to cell in the brain) have on your every mood, emotion, and food craving. For instance, about twenty minutes after you eat a carbohydrate-rich food, your brain releases serotonin; in turn, you feel more relaxed and calm.

Want to feel more perky? Consume a lean, high-protein food such as fish, and the substance that’s released (norepinephrine) lets you feel more awake and energetic (unlike the kick you get from caffeine, you’re not stimulated, just more alert).8 Or if you want a natural high, consider choosing vitamin C-rich oranges, legumes, nuts, or dark chocolate—foods that end up as endorphins—substances in the brain that produce pleasurable feelings.9

Happy Gut, Happier You

There’s another powerful side to the food-mood story in addition to the neurotransmitter-emotions link. There is also a gut-brain connection, which tells us that an unbalanced gut (too much ‘bad’ bacteria) can increase odds of negative emotions and stress. And the opposite is also true: negative emotions can cause an imbalance in your gut, and in turn, negative feelings. Here’s why.

What do industrial farming, farmed fish, pesticides, herbicides, additives, preservatives, and denatured, ultra-processed (UPFs), junk, and fast food with low nutrient availability and lots of added chemicals have in common? They are all part of Western dietary changes over the last seventy years that threaten the stability of both your emotions and your gut microbiome. Made up of trillions of microorganisms that live in your intestinal tract, the microorganisms that comprise your gut microbiome play a critical role in both your physical and mental health.

What I mean is this: The highly processed foods that comprise today’s standard American diet (SAD) contribute to an excess of ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut; and conversely, high levels of bad gut bacteria up the odds of mood problems like depression and anxiety. In other words, negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and consuming lots of UPFs can also damage gut microflora and create an excess of bad microbes. The end result: the negative emotions-bad microbe cycle continues.

If you’re an emotional eater—if you cope with unpleasant, unwelcomed emotions by overeating and bingeing on high-carb, high-fat, super-sweet foods—there are many proactive steps you can take to turn the tide. For starters, to make both yourself and your gut “happier”—choose a diet of mostly fresh, whole foods. When you do: happy gut, happier you.

Food for Busting the Blues: Rx for Emotional Eating

Here are some quick-fix, mood-friendly foods and snacks that bring the benefits of soothing serotonin—without the downside of the emotional “crash” and the weight gain that bingeing on processed, high-calorie, “downer” food (products) can cause.

Smoothie. Combine 2 cups chopped dark leafy greens, 1 cup blueberries, 3 walnut halves, 1 cup milk of choice (cow, soy, almond, rice), ½ cup juice of choice, 3 walnut halves, 1 teaspoon flax oil. Blend.

Avocado spread. Toast a piece of multi-grain bread or choose whole-grain rice crackers. Mash ½ avocado, add salt and pepper to taste. Spread the avocado on the bread. Or a tablespoon of nut butter (peanut, tahini, etc.) on it.

Popcorn. Pop some air-popped popcorn. Spritz lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper. Toss.

Cereal. Enjoy a bowl of cracked oatmeal with a handful of blueberries and milk of choice.

Nuts/Seeds. Try a ¼ cup of raw, unroasted nuts or seeds of choice. A sampling: walnuts, cashews, almonds, pumpkin or sunflower seeds.

Veggies. Munch some carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes; crunch kale or Romaine lettuce leaves. Optional: Use the nut butter blend, above, as a dip or spread for your veggies.

Fish. Enjoy a tuna or salmon salad. Mix together water-packed tuna fish, 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, diced celery and red onion, juice from ½ lemon, salt and pepper.

Fruit. Have an apple, papaya, orange, frozen grapes, banana, kiwi, cherries, pineapple pieces, tangerine, or any other fruit you like.

Chocolate. Savor a piece or two of dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content. Or make hot chocolate with 100% cocoa powder and milk of choice.

Consider trying this: Beginning with your next meal—or your next urge to splurge—try some of the foods in this section. When you do, you’re using state-of-the-art ‘food-mood’ findings to eat for feel-good feelings. And in the process, you’re taking charge of your mental health. One meal at a time. The choice is yours.



Nourishing Your Emotions: Eat for Feel-Good Feelings

Enhancing emotions by consuming fresh, whole, blues-busting foods—instead of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) that are high in sugar, fat, and calories—is a sound step toward overcoming Emotional Eating, the #1 overeating style my research on Whole Person Integrative Eating® has revealed.

In other words, if you turn to food that enhances feel-good feelings, but that also nourishes your mind and body—without the ‘downer’ crash—you’re more likely to lessen your odds of Emotional Eating episodes. In this way, you are empowered to take charge of your mental well-being. One meal at a time.

For more about Emotional Eating and the food-mood connection, please visit my blog at

For more about Whole Person Integrative Eating®—my science-backed program to eat less and weigh less, without dieting—read my award-winning book at

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