The Reasons Why We Get Hooked on Emotional Eating

Why do we turn to comfort foods when we're feeling all the feelings? Hint: your willpower isn't to blame. Find out how to take back control.
Young woman emotional eating ice cream

How to take back control of your comfort cravings.

Does it ever feel like no matter how much you meal prep, schedule workouts, and set goals, there’s an invisible force urging you beyond your control?

Leaving you powerless at the sight of a plate full of pastries or a hot basket of fries?

Even when our routines are more in our control than ever, we still struggle with the irresistible appetite for comfort cravings. Despite cooking more at home and 24/7 access to workouts, we’ve gained an average of two pounds per month during life in lockdown.

Turns out, it’s not our lack of willpower that makes us give in to a knowingly naughty treat.

Instead, there are biological and manipulative forces at work. They hijack our healthy habits and send us face-first into a plate of cookies, despite our best efforts to lose those pesky pandemic pounds.

In his new book, Hooked: Food, Freewill, and How Food Giants Exploit Our Addiction, Michael Moss explains how it’s our primal instinct to survive that motivates our modern desires to eat. And proves how the food industry takes advantage of this knowledge to grow their profits at the expense of our ever-expanding waistlines.

Bringing to light why, even when we know too much sugar, salt, and fat is bad for us, we still lose control and end up overstuffed.

Moss explains how these foods produce intense habit-forming cravings similar, or even worse than addictive substances like cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. He cites Phillip Morris CEO’s definition of addiction as “a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit”, implying addiction doesn’t come from the substance itself.

Instead, our own genetic makeup is the reason behind our compulsive, obsessive, and out-of-control behavior.

Eating Starts in Our Brains

Our brain is a biological ecosystem driven by survival. Made up of millions of neurons and chemicals, constantly monitoring and regulating the information in our body. They react and respond with each other, to become the impulses that guide our behavior.

Dopamine is the motivation chemical, directing our insatiable desires. Released when we see, smell, taste, or even just think of a pleasurable experience. It floods us with reminders of sweet satisfaction, giving us intense motivation to seek out that reward.

It is so powerful we act on an immediate impulse before the stop signal – our prefrontal cortex, responsible for self-regulation – is even aware of what our body is doing. We further disrupt this response by eating distracted, like while watching Netflix or scrolling through social media. Denying our body’s ability to process the feedback of being full.

So, we keep eating until, eventually, we bite off more than we can chew.

The Need for Speed

When studying addiction, researchers found that the speed at which a substance hits the brain can majorly impact its hold over our compulsive behavior.

“The smoke from cigarettes takes 10 seconds to stir the brain, but a touch of sugar on the tongue will do so in a little more than half a second. That’s nearly twenty times faster than cigarettes.”

The faster a substance gets into our bloodstream, the faster it reaches our reward system. Sugar, which is also known to spike glucose levels, hits our brain at an alarming rate. When we come crashing down from our sugar high, our gut signals to our brain to seek out more of this reward.

This gets us hooked. And we need more and more to feel the same blissful effects from that feel-good food.

But it’s not only the speed of digesting these foods that brings gratification. Easy has become just as much of a perceived reward as a slice of rich chocolate cake.

Our fast-paced lifestyle has evolved to crave a speedy response in everything we do. And a quick, convenient food triggers the same satisfyingly sweet pleasure as a sugar-filled snack.

This forms the repetitive behaviors in our brain, reinforcing the habits that are so hard to quit.

Happy Meals, Happy Memories

When we eat, we consume more than just the meal. We take in the surroundings and emotions to form strong connections to the experience.

Food is ingrained in our cultures and defines who we are. Everyone has fond food memories that conjure up warm, home-cooked feelings tied to the past.

Precious moments, laughing with family and friends over dinner, baking Christmas cookies with our favorite loved ones. All get encoded in our memory and influence our current cravings.

But there are also deeper unseen forces that trigger our gut instinct to eat.

Like those fast-food kids’ meals that promised a prized toy at the end. This exciting experience becomes internalized conditioning, and when we see the golden arches we subconsciously equate it with happiness.

Our perceived memories create an entangled relationship, especially when our desires start to shift and we want to make healthier habits.

Don’t Blame Your Metabolism

The oversimplified equation of calories in versus calories out tells us eating more than we burn leads to storing excess fat. And we blame our lazy metabolism when our pants don’t fit, despite starving ourselves.

“I always say to my student that life is really about getting energy and using it to make more life.” – Moss quotes Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard.

According to Lieberman, accumulating fat used to be good. It told our brain to like food, so our ancestors would want to hunt for more. More food meant more energy to sustain and create more life.

Our metabolism guides the signals from our brain and gut to tell the body how to use food for energy. When we eat the right foods, it properly balances calories and cues when it’s time to put down the fork.

But when food is formulated in a lab with chemical additives and imitation flavors, it disrupts our system and turns off our inner wisdom.

The Food Industry Wants You to Crave Cheap Food

“We have evolved in astonishing ways to seek out not just those foods that are sweet and loaded with calories but also those that are convenient and varied and cost less to produce.” – Moss, Michael.

The food industry has a keen sense of how to tap into our inherent desires. They use our biological and emotional attachments to manipulate the ingredients in the food we eat.

Formulating the flavors we crave 

Driven by lowering costs to increase their profits, they turn to cheap products to mimic the flavors of comfort. Instead of chefs, food technicians create the perfect “bliss point” of food.

Crafting packaged food with inexpensive, intimation chemicals and layer it with up to 60 different types of hidden sugar. When everything, even savory food, has an undertone of sugar, it rewires our brain and palate to want everything to be sweet.

A new generation of fast-food 

It gets topped off with an extra spoonful of speedy convenience. These manufacturers provide us a total sensory experience.

Think pre-packaged lunches, over-sweetened breakfast cereals, and squeezable yogurt. All designed to shave time off our jammed-packed schedules. Because with both parents working, who has time for a home-cooked meal?

They cater to our sense of overload and act as a friendly helper to make life easier. They sneak into our kitchen with their frozen and pre-seasoned box meals, to warm their way into our hearts and our stomachs.

Leaving us full on a quick-fix while losing the healthy ritual of a home-cooked meal.

Maybe variety isn’t the spice of life

Ever think about why m&m’s come in so many colors?

They all taste the same, yet opening up a bag of multicolor chocolate is more exciting than just a muddled brown hue. It gives our brain an array of different options and lures us to perceive a new color as a new flavor experience we have to have.

After studying our behavior, food manufacturers caught on that we can only eat so much of one thing. The example of m&m’s shows they only have to make slight modifications to entice our senses to believe there is more variety, making us subconsciously eat more.

Conquering Comfort Cravings

There’s no denying food is comfort. It’s what makes us human. But if giving in to comfort cravings have you feeling uncomfortable in your pants, you can start to gain back control.

It starts with awareness. Being aware of the triggers, both food and other influences you consume helps get to the root of what drives you to eat. Practices like mindful eating, help understand the motivations behind why you eat certain food and connect you to the enjoyment in each bite.

Retraining the brain. Exercise releases similar endorphins as when you sink our teeth into something sweet. The benefits of moderate exercise and quick bursts of movement can boost your mood and quality of health. It remodels your reward system, regulates stress response, and realigns your pleasure centers.

Reconnect and recreate. Feelings of loneliness and isolation raise cortisol levels and inflammation, leading to stress and anxiety. Building supportive relationships have a positive impact on your immune system and overall sense of well-being.

Remember the bonds you formed around food and let that guide a new foundation to create new habits tied to a better relationship with food.

Food isn’t just calories and energy, it fuels our emotions, memories, and sense of well-being. What we eat influences our physical, mental, and environmental health.

When you focus on quality foods and how you feel in your body, you’ll find a more effortless approach to sustaining healthy habits.

To take back control of our health, we need to reconnect to what our bodies are really craving.

Hungry for more? Hooked: Food, Freewill, and How Food Giants Exploit Our Addiction by Michael Moss goes deep into the research ad studies of the brain, addictions, and the manipulative ways the food industry makes our food.


Katie is a professionally-trained chef and lifelong whole food and fitness advocate. She combines her culinary chops and wellness wisdom to write about all areas of our physical and mental well-being. Connect with Katie at

Katie Brozen
Katie is a professionally-trained chef and lifelong whole food and fitness advocate. She combines her culinary chops and wellness wisdom to write about all areas of our physical and mental well-being. Through good food and mindful movement, she explores all topics to inspire whole-body health.