weight loss

3 minute read

Why we eat our feelings: the science behind emotional eating

By Joe Young | Medically reviewed by Dr Nimlan Shanmugathas

Emotional eating is a common challenge that can lead to unwanted weight gain and a complicated relationship with food. It’s not about satisfying physical hunger but rather addressing emotional needs through eating.

By understanding how your body works, you can break this cycle and move towards a balanced lifestyle.

But first thing’s first…

Why do I not get full when I eat?

The sensation of fullness, or satiety, involves a complex interaction of hormones that signal to our brain when we've had enough to eat. However, this system doesn't work the same way for everyone, leading to differences in how we experience hunger and fullness.

Several key hormones are involved in regulating this:


Often called the "hunger hormone," ghrelin is predominantly made in the stomach and signals the brain when it's time to eat. When our stomach is empty, ghrelin levels increase, prompting hunger. After eating, ghrelin levels decrease, reducing the sensation of hunger. 


Known as the "satiety hormone," leptin is produced by fat cells and signals the brain when we’re full. Higher levels of leptin result in a reduced appetite. However, in individuals with obesity, leptin resistance can occur, meaning the brain doesn't respond effectively to leptin signals, leading to persistent hunger despite adequate energy stores. This is one of many reasons why it’s so difficult to lose weight. 

Understanding why some people may not feel full even after eating can shed light on the complexity of weight management and the challenges many face in achieving satiety. 

Why we eat our feelings

To put it simply, emotional eating is a way of filling the void. It’s an easy way to cope with uncomfortable feelings. Classic comfort foods like pizza, chocolate, and burgers look all the more appealing when you’re upset or tired. 

This can stem from various triggers:

Emotional triggers

When you're stressed or anxious, the body releases cortisol, a hormone that can increase appetite and cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods, leading to weight gain. These foods temporarily boost serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter which contributes to feelings of happiness. A survey revealed that 81% of people believed eating their favourite comfort food would improve their mood. 

However, this relief is usually fleeting and followed by guilt. Many women report feeling less healthy and guilty after indulging in comfort food, creating a vicious, never-ending cycle.

Comfort and nostalgia

Many people associate certain foods with positive memories and comfort, often from childhood. Having a strong desire for lasagna often comes with some context. Eating these foods can evoke a sense of nostalgia and emotional safety. Research indicates that comfort foods can enhance emotional wellbeing by reminding individuals of positive relationships and experiences. 


When your mind wanders, so does your appetite. Food is an easy path to a quick dopamine hit. One study found a direct relationship between boredom and snacking, where boredom positively predicted calorie intake, with an increase of approximately 100 calories for each noticeable increase in how bored someone felt.

5 tips to combat emotional eating

You’ve seen why comfort eating is an easy trap to fall into, now let’s see how you can address it effectively. 

Here are some strategies to help you gain control:

Identify triggers

Keep a food diary to track what you eat, when you eat, and the emotions you feel. This can help identify patterns and triggers for emotional eating. Research supports self-monitoring as an effective tool for managing emotional eating. 

Practise mindful eating

Pay attention to what you eat and savour each bite. This helps you stay connected to your body's hunger and fullness signals and reduces the likelihood of overeating. Studies have found that mindfulness-based interventions significantly reduce emotional eating and body weight.

Find alternatives 

Instead of turning to food, find other ways to cope with emotions, such as physical activities like walking or yoga, engaging in a hobby, or talking to a friend or therapist. Exercise can effectively reduce stress and improve mood, helping to curb emotional eating. When the going gets tough, there are plenty of tips and tricks to stay motivated.

Manage stress 

Incorporate stress-reducing activities into your routine, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or spending time in nature. Mindfulness and meditation can significantly reduce stress and improve emotional regulation.

Healthy snacking

When you're counting the minutes until dinner - go for a healthy snack like fruits, vegetables, or nuts. These provide essential nutrients and are less likely to lead to guilt and further emotional eating. A study found that healthy snacking can improve overall diet quality and help manage weight.

How Numan’s Weight Loss Programme helps with comfort eating

If you struggle with emotional eating, you're not alone. Numan’s programme includes an app, allowing you to connect with health coaches, log emotions, and access expert-crafted content. This helps you establish the underlying causes of your eating habits and develop strategies for a healthier relationship with food.

Our programme helps patients lose 36% more weight when they engage with behavioural coaching via the app alongside taking medication, compared to patients who do not engage with coaching support.*

Numerous studies highlight the importance of professional support in managing emotional eating and promoting long-term health. And don’t just take it from us - Ellen and Craig experienced the programme firsthand and found the support from their health coach to be a game-changer.

*A retrospective analysis was conducted on a cohort of 3,256 patients receiving GLP-1 Receptor agonists. All weight was self-reported via Numan’s mobile app, web platform, or via clinician communications.

The numan take

Knowledge is power. Understanding why you eat when you’re down or stressed is an effective tool for overcoming comfort eating. By understanding your body’s signals and implementing practical tips, you can take the first steps toward owning your health.