James J. Annesi, PhD, FAAHB, FTOS, FAPA, was appointed Vice President of Health Initiatives for the Central Coast YMCA in Monterey, Calif., in late 2021. He is also currently Adjunct Research Faculty at California State University Monterey Bay’s College of Health Sciences and Human Services. His earlier research, faculty, and clinical positions were at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Health Professions, the University of Georgia’s Owens Institute of Behavioral Research, Kennesaw State University’s Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education, Rutgers University’s Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, the Veterans Affairs NJ Health Care System, The Chattanooga Lifestyle Center, Enhanced Performance Technologies, and the YMCA of Metro Atlanta. Dr. Annesi is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Health Behavior, The Obesity Society, and the American Psychological Association’s divisions of Health Psychology, Behavior Analysis, and Exercise/Sport/Performance Psychology. In 2019, he received the American Psychological Association’s Excellence in Clinical Health Psychology Award from their Society for Health Psychology.
Exercise and Emotional Eating: What is the Connection?
For most of the 74% of American adults with overweight and obesity (about 190 million individuals), controlling emotional eating is essential for achieving sustained weight loss. Emotional eating usually consists of the overconsumption of unhealthy, energy-dense foods, which adds to challenges related to excess weight. Although the understanding of emotional eating as a learned response that seeks to diminish an unfavorable mental state was suggested more than 65 years ago, its effective treatment remains unclear, as does the treatment of obesity. However, exercise can play a positive role in countering emotional eating and managing weight, due to its positive impacts on mood and the behavioral skills clients can be empowered with to maintain exercise. With an increased understanding of the psychosocial dynamics covered in this article, you will be better equipped to help many of your clients with emotional eating.
First, it's essential to clarify that binge eating disorder, a mental condition characterized by uncontrollable overconsumption of food within a short span, is relatively rare, afflicting less than 3% of U.S. adults. By contrast, emotional eating (excluding binge eating disorder) is much more common. This article primarily focuses on methods for addressing the latter.
A Guiding Paradigm
Every individual with emotional eating is unique, and worthy of respect as such. However, changing any health behavior is subject to principles of behavioral science that are common to all of us. Your knowledge of these still-evolving tenets can guide your work with clients and how you support their efforts. With regard to emotional eating, we can start by acknowledging the following tenets:
- Regular exercise is associated with mood improvements occurring both right after a session (i.e., acute feeling state changes) and over time (chronic mood changes).
- Improved mood is associated with reduced emotional eating.
The following path incorporates these relationships:
Increased exercise → Improved mood → Reduced emotional eating → Overall improved eating behaviors → Weight loss
It is important to note, however, that there are several more nuanced research findings on the association of exercise and emotional eating. Notably, adherence to exercise is challenging in individuals with overweight and obesity; it is even more challenging for those who also have heightened depression and/or anxiety. Additionally, obesity, depression, anxiety and emotional eating are typically linked.
Previous research on exercise, controlled eating and obesity treatment confirms that educating your client about how to exercise or eat more healthfully is simply not enough, particularly for sustained weight loss or other health improvements. Rather, actively facilitating self-regulation methods (e.g., control over unproductive self-talk, resisting relapses and planning for behavioral “slips” in advance of their occurrences, dissociation from discomfort, tracking progress related to incremental goals) to counter barriers and challenges to the desired behavioral changes is a more effective approach. Furthermore, a successful system for maintaining weight loss includes the development of self-regulatory skills that support behavioral changes. This includes managing overeating associated with anxiety, depressed mood, anger and overall negative mood.
What the Research Tells Us About Emotional Eating and Exercise
In the process of developing and refining a behavioral support system that helps individuals achieve sustained weight loss through psychological improvements linked to exercise (rather than focusing on its associated energy expenditures, which are limited in deconditioned adults), my colleagues and I researched emotional eating from various perspectives. What follows are four primary findings based on the results of 18 peer-reviewed studies (and an additional two of our investigations presently in peer review) completed over the past five years. Although scientific rigor was strong within each study, the research was primarily conducted in field settings with an eye toward making the findings applicable to the work you do as a health and exercise professional. In addition to summarizing the research and findings, recommendations on how you can apply the findings in your work with clients are also included.
Emotional Eating Defined
Emotional eating is a behavior in which individuals consume food, often in excessive quantities, as a way to cope with or soothe their emotional or psychological distress. This type of eating is driven by feelings, such as stress, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, boredom or frustration, rather than genuine physical hunger. People who engage in emotional eating may use food as a means of self-soothing, comfort or distraction from their emotional discomfort.
Emotional eating can lead to overeating and an increased intake of high-calorie, often unhealthy foods, which can contribute to weight gain and related health issues. It is important to help clients recognize and address emotional eating to establish healthier and more adaptive ways of dealing with emotions and stress, such as seeking emotional support, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in alternative stress-reduction techniques.
If you are interested in diving deeper into this research, please see the recommended reading list at the end of this article.
Finding 1: Emotional eating goes beyond the relationship between mood and overeating unhealthy foods. While the mood–overeating connection is genuine, it becomes significantly stronger when we consider the role of emotional eating.
What Does This Mean for Health and Exercise Professionals?
While addressing the root causes of a client’s emotional eating should be left to psychologists and psychotherapists, you can make a significant impact by acknowledging, addressing and mitigating the issue with your clients. Our research demonstrates that as few as three sessions of moderate-intensity walking can consistently reduce anxiety and depressed mood in adults who embark on an exercise program. While these changes don’t necessarily require active mood tracking, they can help clients recognize the connection between exercise, improved mood and their ability to control emotional eating. This empowers clients to understand that they are not helpless victims of emotional eating but can leverage the positive health behavior of exercise to counteract unhealthy eating habits.
Finding 2: Teaching self-regulatory skills to navigate barriers to overcoming unhealthy behaviors and emotional eating is crucial. Various studies suggest that, after being specifically instructed, individuals’ use of self-regulation increased the impact that exercise-associated mood change had on emotional eating. This was the case for both anxiety-driven emotional eating and depression-driven emotional eating. The studies also suggest that the time you spend actively supporting clients’ self-regulatory skills can be highly productive. By contrast, it was not nearly as effective when the same self-regulation skills were presented to clients through written materials.
What Does This Mean for Health and Exercise Professionals?
Taking the time to educate and provide tools to enhance your clients’ self-regulatory skills can help them overcome common lifestyle barriers to sustained exercise and controlled eating. These skills should be taught and practiced individually, without overwhelming the client. Clients can track their use of self-regulatory skills when dealing with specific barriers, such as during episodes of low mood and emotional overeating. Research suggests that breaking down large goals into smaller, incremental ones that are regularly tracked is a vital self-regulatory skill. A client’s ability to manage unproductive self-talk, plan for inevitable setbacks in advance and adapt skills from exercise to eating contexts are also crucial. This phenomenon of behavioral changes from exercise transferring to other health behaviors is referred to as “coaction.”
Finding 3: Self-efficacy, defined as feelings of competence, ability and mastery, plays a crucial role in mitigating emotional eating. The research shows that when individuals use their newly learned self-regulatory skills to effectively control their emotional eating (where they were not able to previously get through barriers), self-efficacy increased. This, in turn, is associated with persistent and increased weight loss sustained over the two tested years. One study suggests that self-efficacy was as essential as mood change during the initial 10 weeks of a cognitive-behavioral weight-management program focused on emotional eating. However, there are other notable interactions found between changes in self-regulation, mood and self-efficacy. For example, exercise-associated improvements in mood were associated with more use of self-regulation, and positive feeling changes encouraged individuals’ commitment to the process.
What Does This Mean for Health and Exercise Professionals?
Urging your clients to focus on small, consistent progress toward their behavioral goals can boost their self-efficacy. Clearly communicate that the progress they make results from their diligent use of newly acquired self-regulatory skills, which, in turn will encourage their adherence to the process. The same self-regulatory skills that make it more likely that they will stick with their exercise program can be adapted to address emotional eating, especially when you help them transition these skills from exercise to eating contexts. Not surprisingly, the positive changes in mood they are likely experiencing because they are exercising more regularly can foster greater use of self-regulation skills, as positive emotions drive commitment to the process.
It's worth noting that the amount of exercise performed (duration, intensity, frequency) did not have a dose-response effect with mood change or weight loss. About three sessions of moderate-intensity exercise per week maximized the effect. Thus, there is no advantage to urging clients to complete more than the recommended amounts of exercise, as this approach could be associated with discomfort and could lead to dropout. Assessing pre- to post-exercise mood changes through a standardized survey and adjusting exercise amounts accordingly can help ensure exercise is associated with positive feeling-state changes.
Finding 4: Body satisfaction significantly influences the relationship between exercise and emotional eating. Along with self-regulation and mood changes, change in body satisfaction significantly affected the exercise-emotional eating relationship. Body satisfaction improvement fostered reductions in anxiety and depression, improved overall mood, and enhanced self-regulated eating on its way toward reducing emotional eating. Early improvement in weight impacted body satisfaction, which then affected long-term weight loss. However, in an earlier study, improved body image was less related to physical changes than it was to improvements in persistence and self-efficacy. In other words, the changes were related to their perception of self rather than actual physical changes that may have occurred. Finally, while a slightly improved body image was associated with reduced emotional eating, self-efficacy and mood changes proved to be more important over the initial three months of testing.
What Does This Mean for Health and Exercise Professionals?
Traditional psychotherapeutic approaches aimed at improving body image often attempt to reduce clients’ comparisons with idealized media images, a particularly prevalent issue for women. Instead, you can emphasize small, incremental progress and the resulting boosts in self-efficacy. Minimizing comparisons with younger and fitter individuals in favor of an internal focus on consistent self-improvement can lead to a more positive body image. While previous studies have linked a negative body image to increased emotional eating, participants in those studies were rarely trained in the self-regulatory skills proposed here.
Practical Application: An Example From the Research
A woman with severe obesity who adhered to this approach of emphasizing manageable amounts of exercise and diligently employing self-regulation skills to combat emotional eating managed to lose half her body weight in three years, going from 259.3 pounds [body mass index (BMI) = 43.1 kg/m2] to 130.1 pounds (BMI = 21.6 kg/m2). She successfully maintained this weight loss for an additional two years within the research project. Her wellness professional noted that the participant had realized that when she changed her negative thoughts, she was better able to control her eating habits. The client further explained her success: “I use the dissociation technique to help me distance myself from the discomfort of hunger and/or eating when I am anxious, sad, bored, etc.; and the [behavior] tracking is a way to stay honest, truthful and correct immediately when I go off course.” These practical applications of self-regulation skills, including dissociation from discomfort, tracking progress toward incremental goals, and resisting relapses and planning for behavioral “slips,” played a pivotal role in overcoming her emotional eating.
Emotions and eating are inherently linked, and emotional eating often arises as a way to cope with negative moods. This is a widespread issue that contributes to obesity and its associated health risks. Traditional methods that emphasize the importance of specific exercise regimens, healthy eating and avoiding emotional interference have fallen short for decades. While an estimated 28% of American adults engage in enough exercise to reap health benefits, more than three-fourths of the population now grapples with excess weight, and rising levels of negative mood are linked to increased emotional eating.
When designing exercise programs for your clients, consider the following recommendations:
- Tailor exercise amounts to elicit positive post-session feelings.
- Teach and practice an array of self-regulatory skills to help clients overcome barriers to sustained exercise and controlled eating.
- Highlight incremental progress that boosts clients' self-efficacy and enhances their body image.
- Exercise is a significant predictor of sustained weight loss because it brings about psychosocial changes that aid in controlling eating. Don’t overlook this potential. With the insights provided in this article, you can empower your clients to address emotional eating through evidence-based methods and processes grounded in behavioral research.
Recommended Emotional Eating Reading List
Annesi, J.J. (2019). Relationship of emotional eating and mood changes through self-regulation . Psychological Reports, 122, 5, 1689–1706.
Annesi, J.J. (2020). Psychosocial correlates of emotional eating and their interrelations:. Journal of Primary Prevention, 41, 2, 105–125.
Annesi, J.J. and Johnson, P.H. (2020). Mitigation of the effects of emotional eating on sweets . Appetite, 155, Article 104818.
Annesi, J.J. and Johnson, P.H. (2021). Emotional eating: A treatment-worthy construct, or. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 62, 2, 193–202.
Annesi, J.J. (2021). Effects of increased exercise on propensity for emotional eating through . Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 53, 11, 944–950.
Annesi, J.J. (2021). Reciprocal relationship of mood and emotional eating changes through self-. Eating Behaviors, 43, Article 101559.
Annesi, J.J. (2022). Coaction of obesity treatment-associated changes in physical activity and. Health Education and Behavior, 49, 1, 35-40.
Annesi, J.J. (2022). Relation of changes in body satisfaction with propensities for emotional. Health Behavior Research, 5, 1, Article 2.
Annesi, J.J. (2022). Additional effects of reduced emotional eating on associations of weight. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 4, 408–415.
Annesi, J.J. and Eberly, A.A. (2022). Sequential mediation of the relation of increased physical. Family and Community Health, 45, 3, 187–194.
Annesi, J.J. (2022). Effects of emotional eating on weight loss in women with obesity: . Minerva Psychiatry, 63, 1, 28–36.
Annesi, J.J. and Eberly, A.A. (2022). Early effects of improved mood on propensity for. Health Behavior Research, 5, 4, Article 4.
Annesi, J.J. (2023). Effects of obesity treatment-associated changes in mood and self-regulation on high emotional eating. Current Psychology, 42, 11, 8705–8708.
Annesi, J.J. and Stewart, F. A. (2023). Emotional eating: Psychosocial bases, accordingly. Journal of Prevention, 44, 2, 221–237.
Annesi, J.J. and Stewart, F.A. (2023). Effects of body satisfaction and emotional eating on. Health Behavior Research, 6, 1, Article 6.
Annesi, J.J. (in press). From increased exercise to reductions in emotional eating and . Journal of Prevention and Health Promotion, Advance online publication.
Annesi, J.J. (in press). Early effects of body satisfaction on emotional eating: Tailored treatment impacts via psychosocial mediators in women with obesity. Behavioral Medicine, Advance online publication.
Annesi, J.J. and Eberly, A.A. (in press). Effects of women’s age group on their emotional eating. Health Care for Women International, Advance online publication.
Annesi, J.J. and Powell, S.M. (2023). Effects of women’s body satisfaction, emotional eating, and race on short-, mid- and long-term weight loss. [Manuscript submitted for publication].
Annesi, J.J., and Powell, S.M. (2023). Mediation of emotional eating in the effects of self-regulating eating on short- and long-term weight loss: Additional impacts from baseline mood in women with obesity. [Manuscript submitted for publication].
Expand Your Knowledge
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