Obesity Causes Psychology

Overeating causes obesity, but what causes overeating? For many people, emotions are the primary cause of overeating. Emotional eating can progress into compulsive overeating disorders such as binge eating or bulimia nervosa.

Emotional Eating: Triggers and Causes of Overeating

Many people find food and the act of eating comforting. Eating is, after all, a pleasurable activity. Emotional overeating occurs when people use the comfort provided by eating as a coping strategy for negative emotions. Instead of dealing with the emotion or stress in a healthy manner, the individual gains short-term relief through eating. Often the person is not consciously aware of the connection between his emotional state and the related compulsive overeating.

An emotional cause of overeating may be related to:

  • Anger/frustration
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Low self esteem
  • Relationship problems
  • Stress.

Emotional overeating may also be triggered by circumstances. For instance, a person may associate eating with watching television. In this case, watching television may be a cause of overeating.

Emotional overeating is often linked to gaining weight and obesity. Many emotional eaters tend to eat “comfort foods,” which are often high in fat content, sugars and calories. Emotional eating also tends to be automatic–people who overeat due to distressing emotions or stressors tend to eat on “autopilot,” without particularly enjoying food.

Any relief provided by emotional eating is temporary, as the event or emotion that triggered the eating has not been dealt with in a healthy manner. In addition to being a major cause of overeating and obesity, emotional eating can progress into clinical overeating disorders.

Compulsive Overeating Disorders

Compulsive overeating disorder, or binge eating, is similar to emotional eating, but far more serious. A person with compulsive overeating disorder feels compelled to eat and unable to stop eating.

Binge Purge Cycle - Psychological Causes of Overeating

The difference between binge eating disorders and emotional eating is often one of extent. Both conditions use eating as a coping strategy for negative emotions or stress. Emotional eating is a habit, while binge eating is a compulsion.

While compulsive overeating disorder is a response to stress or negative emotions, the person affected usually isn’t aware of the cause and effect. He or she overeats in response to emotions and feels temporary relief due to eating, followed by shame and guilt over the amount eaten. The negative emotions caused by overeating are often enough to begin the cycle anew.

Compulsive overeating disorder is similar to bulimia nervosa, another eating disorder characterized by uncontrolled overeating followed by feelings of guilt or shame. People with bulimia, however, use unhealthy ways to avoid gaining weight after overeating. A person with bulimia may induce vomiting or abuse laxatives to prevent weight gain. Binge eaters do not do this. While people with bulimia range in weight from underweight to obese, people with compulsive overeating disorder are generally overweight or obese.


Mayo Clinic. (2009). Weight loss help: Gain control of emotional eating. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/weight-loss/MH00025.

MedicineNet. (2008). Weight loss: Emotional eating. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://www.medicinenet.com/emotional_eating/article.htm.

National Women’s Health Information Center. (2009). Bulimia nervosa: Frequently asked questions. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://womenshealth.gov/faq/bulimia-nervosa.cfm.

Nemours Foundation. (2009). Binge eating disorder. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/problems/binge_eating.html#.