Emotional eating. What is it and how to detect it?

How many times have you seen the scene in a movie where a depressed girl or boy is eating ice cream directly from a family size pint? Perhaps this is the image that most often comes to mind when we think of emotional eating, however, far from being a movie cliché, it is a phenomenon that most people experience at some point in their lives.

Difference between emotional and physiological intake

Before going into the subject in more depth, it is important to distinguish between emotional intake and physiological hunger. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are clear markers to recognize both types of intake (1):


Physiological Intake

  • Appears gradually
  • Leads to eating any type of food
  • Allows to feel full and, consequently, to stop eating
  • Does not provoke guilt


Emotional Intake

  • Appears suddenly
  • Produces desire for specific foods
  • Not satisfied with satiety
  • Generates guilt or shame


Why does emotional intake occur?

Emotional eating is a way to compensate for emotions and is very common in times of boredom, sadness, depression, stress or fatigue. However, feelings or situations with negative connotations are not the only ones that can trigger an episode of emotional eating. The reality is that human beings maintain a very close relationship between their emotions and food, so emotional eating can also occur in moments of happiness.


Mujer ingesta emocional

What problems can result from emotional eating?

Emotional intake is mainly regulated by a reward system in the brain. We can say that, in general, the four strands of the brain’s reward system are: motivation (desire), outcome (taste), memory (learning) and habituation (adaptation), and they determine how a cue (food, drug, money, promotion, etc.) is perceived, memorized, expected or even forgotten (2).

At the physiological level, the main consequence of emotional eating is weight gain, but, in the most severe cases, the person may develop an eating disorder known as “binge eating”, in which the person has episodes of uncontrolled eating and subsequently feels guilt and tries to compensate by resorting to prolonged fasting.


What is the relationship between genetics and emotional food intake?

Different genome studies and analyses have identified common genetic variants that have some effect on body mass index. Genome-wide studies of individuals of European ancestry have associated hundreds of SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) with increased BMI (body mass index). Although the SNPs identified explain only a portion of the total genetic variation in BMI, these findings have opened the possibility of expanding the view on the mechanisms that regulate the effects of common genetic variants on obesity, and it has been postulated that eating behaviors directly related to appetite (including emotional eating) represent one such mechanism. This idea is supported by data that many of the BMI-related SNPs are expressed especially in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which play a key role in regulating food intake and energy expenditure.(3)(4)

There is evidence that specifically the DRD2 gene influences the brain reward system and a possible variation in it is associated with emotional eating and weight gain. Approximately 11% of Caucasians and 14% of Asians carry a variation in this gene that increases the risk of binge eating disorder (6).

It is known that the DRD2 gene is a key player in the neural circuitry of dopamine, which is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter or pleasure hormone, and low dopamine levels are often associated with depression. This neural circuit allows the generation of the “reward value” in a food, which logically influences eating-related behaviors, facilitating emotional eating behavior. (7)

CrossDNA and food

CrossDNA’s wellness and sport test includes an analysis of specific diet-related markers that will help you gain a better understanding of your genetic predisposition to emotional eating and the benefits of different diets, as well as other factors related to food and weight.



  1. Amanda Bassett-Swanson, L. I. C. S. W. (2022, February 22). Feeding feelings: Emotional overeating. Mayo Clinic Health System. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/feeding-your-feelings
  2. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Baler RD. 2011. Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity. Trends Cogn Sci. 15(1):37-46. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.11.001. PMID: 21109477
  3. Yengo, L, Sidorenko, J, Kemper, KE et al. (2018) Meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies for height and body mass index in approximately 700000 individuals of European ancestry. Hum Mol Genet 27, 3641–3649.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
  4. Locke, AE, Kahali, B, Berndt, SI et al. (2015) Genetic studies of body mass index yield new insights for obesity biology. Nature 518, 197–206.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
  5. Konttinen, H. (2020). Emotional eating and obesity in adults: The role of depression, sleep and genes. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 79(3), 283-289. doi:10.1017/S0029665120000166
  6. Epstein LH, Temple JL, Neaderhiser BJ, Salis RJ, Erbe RW, Leddy JJ. 2007. Food reinforcement, the dopamine D2 receptor genotype, and energy intake in obese and nonobese humans.Behav Neurosci. 121(5):877-86. PMID:17907820
  7. Jönsson EG, Nöthen MM, Grünhage F, Farde L, Nakashima Y, Propping P, Sedvall GC.1999. Polymorphisms in the dopamine D2 receptor gene and their relationships to striatal dopamine receptor density of healthy volunteers. Mol Psychiatry. 4(3):290-6. PMID:10395223


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