Emotional Eating & Pleasure: What’s the Connection?

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Woman eating for pleasure

For many people, emotional eating is a challenge that impacts our mood, weight, energy level, and our experience of life. We may know that we don’t want to emotionally eat, but that knowing isn’t usually enough to actually stop us.

The key to freeing yourself from emotional eating and finding greater peace with food is very simple:


Meaning, we need to understand emotional eating more deeply

And a great place to start is by examining one of the most important and misunderstood features about emotional eating. 

It’s the thing we love most about food:


The simple truth is, emotional eating and pleasure go hand in hand – and both can get out of hand.

In this article, I’ll talk about:

  • Why we emotionally eat for pleasure
  • The Hedonist Eating Archetype 
  • Finding balance between eating for pleasure, for hunger, and for health

I’ll also give you a 5-step process for managing pleasure and emotional eating I’ve been using with clients for decades and that we teach in our Mind Body Eating Coach Certification Program.

Emotional Eating Made Simple

Let’s begin our journey by taking a moment and getting on the same page about what emotional eating actually is.

Here’s the most simple and straightforward definition:

Emotional eating is the act of turning to food to help regulate uncomfortable emotions.

It’s a pretty universal phenomenon that human beings will reach for food to help manage anxiety, fear, stress, boredom, loneliness, disappointment, confusion, anger, lack of love, and more.

This is not necessarily a true problem when taken by itself. We always need to find strategies to deal with difficult life experiences and unwanted feelings.

So emotional eating is not inherently bad. And it’s not an indication that something is wrong with you.

Emotional eating becomes problematic though, when the drawbacks start to outweigh the benefits.

Meaning, emotional eating works against us when we find ourselves feeling shame. Or guilt. Or we notice that things start to get out of our control and we gain weight, feel heavy, and feel fatigued.

What we always need to keep in mind about emotional eating though, is this:

The deeper goal of all emotional eating is stress reduction and pleasure enhancement.

Allow me to state this in a different way:

  • We emotionally eat to feel good.
  • Feeling good means that we are creating pleasure chemistry.
  • Pleasure chemistry is the natural antidote to stress chemistry.
  • So emotional eating and the desire for pleasure are a package deal…

But what confuses so many people is this:

The desire for pleasure from food can often feel overwhelming.

We can feel as if we’re food addicts, or pleasure junkies, or that we’re somehow powerless in the face of our hunger for the foods that excite us. 

The good news is though, we can find some important insights in the simple science of the body and the psychology of mind and emotions.

So let’s take a closer look at the psychobiology of pleasure…

Why We Eat for Pleasure

At the most fundamental level of creation, all creatures have a very similar core genetic programming:

We are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

You can look at all animal and human behaviors through this lens. 

When we eat, we are seeking the pleasure of food, of satiation, and we’re avoiding the pain of hunger or starvation.

In fact, the core imperatives of survival – eating and procreation – are so important that the wisdom of the universe has made sure that both feeding and breeding are quite pleasurable.

In other words, if these didn’t feel so good, we wouldn’t want to do them, and life and civilization would cease to exist.

So it’s important to truly understand and embrace this simple scientific truth:

We are literally, physiologically, and evolutionarily built for pleasure. We’re hardwired for it. 

So it wouldn’t make any sense for us to judge pleasure, fight pleasure, or feel guilty that we enjoy pleasure and constantly seek it out. It’s how we are created.

Yes, we can find ourselves in an unhealthy relationship with pleasure. But this doesn’t change the fact that we are creatures of pleasure – and our job is to learn how to make pleasure work for and not against us.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at two core principles of pleasure chemistry.

Core Principle #1: Pleasure catalyzes a relaxation response.

This means that in the moments we begin to feel pleasure, our physiology shifts from the stress state – sympathetic nervous system dominance – to the relaxation response – parasympathetic nervous system dominance. 

So, if you have a bad day at the office and you come home and get a massage, the pleasure of being touched will initiate a relaxation response. 

Meaning, your heart rate and blood pressure will even out, stress hormones such as cortisol will decrease, and pleasure chemicals will be secreted throughout the body. 

Likewise, if you’re not feeling so good about life, and you decide to eat a dessert that you love, the pleasure you receive from it can almost instantaneously move your body from the physiologic stress response to the physiologic relaxation response.  

In other words, food makes us feel better at a cellular and emotional level.

That’s why we so consistently turn to food to feel better. It actually works. At least temporarily.

Core Principle #2: Stress desensitizes us to pleasure.

This is a very helpful metabolic distinction. It means that whenever you are feeling stressed, anxious, worried, or angry, your cellular receptors for pleasure biomolecules are blunted. More specifically, the hormone cortisol is the main substance that desensitizes our pleasure receptors. 

The result of this is quite fascinating:

It takes more food, more chocolate, or more sugar to give you the same pleasure when you’re stressed compared to when you’re relaxed.  

Can you see the problem here?

A stressed mind creates a pleasure-resistant metabolism, which can lead us to emotionally eat even more because we’re trying to find pleasure through food, and the body just isn’t registering pleasure in its normal and healthy way.

And why is the body designed this way?

Well, from an evolutionary perspective, when we’re in a full-blown stress response trying to escape a predator who’s looking to eat us, we don’t want to get sidetracked looking for dessert. We want all of our senses and efforts focused on survival. We actually need to feel some pain if we are injured. 

But the survival portion of our brain does not distinguish between a real or imagined threat. So work stress or a relationship upset registers in us a stress response, which means that we need more of any pleasurable food or experience for pleasure chemistry to work its magic. 

So, the key lessons we are learning about pleasure are these:

  • We are genetically built for pleasure.
  • The hunger for food and the hunger for pleasure from food are biologically intertwined.
  • We cannot remove pleasure from food.
  • Pleasure is designed to naturally relax us.
  • Stress is designed to prevent us from fully feeling pleasure…

The Hedonist Eating Archetype

When it comes to a deeper understanding of pleasure, it’s helpful to look at the archetypes within us.

Think of an archetype as a sub-personality.

The simple truth is, you’re not just one singular person. 

You’re more like a crowd.

Meaning, we have many different voices inside of us. 

We may have the voice of the child, the parent, the warrior, the perfectionist, the hero, the best friend, the lover, the king, the queen, the nerd, the people pleaser, the health fanatic, and hundreds if not thousands more.

One of the key voices of pleasure within us is the Hedonist. 

You can consider this voice as the champion of pleasure. It’s the part of us that:

  • Loves and celebrates pleasure.
  • Actively seeks out pleasurable experiences.
  • Appreciates the good things in life.
  • Can sometimes get into bad habits around pleasure.

So the Hedonist Eating Archetype is neither purely good nor purely bad. 

It has propensities that truly serve us, and it can sometimes go overboard and become too indulgent and too pleasure focused.

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Can you think of someone in your life who strongly displays this archetype? Someone who perhaps loves good food, drink, someone who delights in indulging in their senses, and they’re not ashamed about it?

What often happens is this:

Many people do battle with the voice of pleasure within. 

We fail to honor and embrace the hedonist eating archetype.

Accepting this voice doesn’t mean we eat whatever we want whenever we want. It means that we notice that the voice of pleasure is important, it’s valuable, it’s a part of what makes us so human, and it’s a personality within us that can be fallible and make mistakes.

Your job is to simply let pleasure have a voice.

You can dialogue with this part of you, negotiate with it, give it what it wants, let it celebrate life, and at the same time, help it make your experience of pleasure feel harmonious and thoughtful.

Finding Balance Between Eating for Pleasure and for Hunger

If you, your loved ones, or your patients and clients find themselves challenged when it comes to pleasure driven emotional eating, then please know there are simple, straightforward, and effective tools to help create more peace and freedom with food.

The key approach is this:

Learn to conduct the voice of pleasure within you so it works for and not against you.

We’ve already looked at a deeper understanding of pleasure and food. 

We’ve seen how our inborn drive for pleasure is natural and necessary.

So, your first task is to let go of the old strategies that don’t work when it comes to trying to control emotional eating and pleasure-driven eating.

In other words, it’s time to let go of: 

  • Fighting pleasure
  • Fighting or controlling your appetite
  • Attacking yourself because you think you have a willpower problem

Once again, to get the best experience of pleasure requires wisdom.

Wisdom comes when we let go of negative self talk.

Wisdom comes when we slow down, listen deeply to our body, and when we see what life is trying to teach us in each moment. 

Let’s look at a step-by-step approach…

A 5-Step Process for Managing Pleasure and Emotional Eating 

A healthy relationship with food happens when we create an intentional practice. 

In other words, finding peace and freedom with food is something that we need to put work into.

Our job is to relax into this simple fact of life. 

So, being challenged with pleasure-driven emotional eating, or any unwanted eating habit, is not an indication that we’re broken, defective, or that something is “wrong” with us. 

We are simply human beings who are here to learn and grow. 

Some people are learning and growing through work, or relationships, or financial challenges, physical limitations, family concerns, and more.

And many of us are learning and growing through our unwanted eating challenges.

Shame and guilt about this are simply not necessary, or useful.

With this in mind, here’s a five step process to managing unwanted pleasure driven eating:

Step 1: Be present to pleasure while you’re experiencing it

Many people keep returning again and again to getting pleasure from food because we don’t actually get it in the first place. Meaning, it’s easy to eat on autopilot when eating, to go unconscious when we consume food, to multitask when we eat, or to eat super fast.

The result is that the brain fails to register any pleasure. We literally cheat ourselves out of having pleasure because we were not aware of what we ate. We weren’t present. We checked out and failed to register pleasurable sensations.

When this happens, the brain takes notice. 

Head brain and gut brain – the enteric nervous system – are scanning for the contents of our meal, and our experience of the meal.

When we fail to notice pleasure, we are in a literal pleasure deficit and the brain will simply scream “Hungry!” And so we’ll be driven to eat MORE, even if you just had a big tasty meal or dessert.


  • Stay present to pleasure when you eat.
  • Notice it, feel it, and let the pleasure of eating move you.
  • Eat slow, relaxed, and sensuously…

With this one simple step, you’re giving your body and mind what they want – pleasure – so you don’t need to eat even more food in order to get the experience of pleasure that you would have otherwise missed. 

Step 2: Spread pleasure all around in your life – don’t just confine it to food

So many people have unconsciously fallen into the pattern of having food be either the best pleasure in their life, or the ONLY pleasure in their life. 

If you don’t like your existence, if you don’t feel happy to be here, if you don’t have dreams, hopes, faith, trust, passions, interests, intimacy, love and more – then it’s easy to turn to food for your best experience of pleasure.

That’s because food is a fast and faithful way to feel pleasure in any given moment.

But when food is our only true pleasure, it puts too much pressure on the food.

We will be focused on food, constantly thinking about it, fantasizing about it, and it will be front and center in our mind – all because we’ve made it the most important pleasure that we have. 

Here’s the remedy:

  • Make an inventory of everything in your life that can possibly provide you with pleasure or goodness or happiness.
  • Make this list your bible of pleasure, and use it to incorporate new pleasures in your life as best you can.
  • Gradually create a life that has more pleasure, connection, and passion in it that has nothing to do with food. 

So it’s not about fighting food. It’s about making the rest of your life as important and pleasurable as food…

Step 3: Be your own pleasure gatekeeper – moderate engineered foods

Unfortunately, we live in a world where not every company that creates food has your best interest at heart. Quite the opposite, so many of the big food companies have spent a fantastic amount of money and resources to engineer foods that get your brain and physiology hooked on their products.

To this end, the food manufacturers have figured out powerful concepts such as the “bliss point” of foods – the right mix of flavors, textures, crunch levels, fat content, sugar content, salt content, and more – that flirt with the addictive tendencies of our physiology. 

The result is that you think you have a problem, you think it’s your fault, you think you lack willpower, or that something’s wrong with you, and all that’s really happening is that you’ve been fooled by manufacturers who have blindsided you from a young age to endlessly munch on their products and make them rich.

So, your job is to reclaim your dignity and power.

They’ve hijacked your pleasure command center and have bent it to their will. Let’s unbend it.

  • Choose to be the gatekeeper of the pleasurable foods that you consume.
  • Notice the foods that get you hooked – and commit to limiting them as best you can.
  • You don’t need to eliminate these foods completely – going cold turkey simply makes many people rebound hard.
  • Clean up the rest of your diet, eat more nutrient dense foods, and take the slow road to eating healthy and high quality food.

Step 4: Notice where you have unexamined stress in your life

Many of us are turning to food to manage stress in our life. We might be dealing with:

  • Relationship concerns
  • Intimacy challenges
  • Lack of love 
  • Lack of sensuality and sexual connection
  • Unhappiness at work
  • Overwork
  • And all the many challenges of being a human being trying to live a happy and sane life…

So it makes sense that we’d turn to food for pleasure.

But as you can see, this is really not a FOOD problem.

It’s a LIFE problem.

So, take a good look at your life. Ask yourself:

  • What areas of my life are calling for my attention?
  • What help can I get or resources can I utilize that will help me get unstuck in the places that I know are needing change? 

By asking these questions, you are getting to the root of what may be driving your unwanted eating habits…

Step 5: Ask yourself “What part of me needs to grow & mature when it comes to pleasure?”

Here’s your last step. It’s all about seeing where you need to grow and mature yourself when it comes to your experience of pleasure. Consider the following:

Each one of us has our own unique relationship with pleasure.

And each one of us has our own unique journey with pleasure. 

It’s time to tap into how you are being asked by the wisdom of life to learn and grow when it comes to pleasure in all its forms.

So, ask yourself: “What part of me needs to grow & mature when it comes to pleasure?”

Perhaps life is asking you to learn how to:

  • Step out of the child within that demands instant pleasure whenever they want it.
  • Value long-term health over short-term satisfaction.
  • Stay in your body when you’re receiving ANY kind of pleasure & not check out
  • Value other kinds of pleasures, and not exclusively food.

Of course, there are so many possibilities here.

I trust you’re seeing that you can evolve your relationship with food, pleasure and life.

I trust that you’re seeing that you’re on a learning path, that you’ve been on one all your life, and that your relationship with food and body is here to help you learn, grow, and be a better version of yourself.

I hope this conversation has been helpful for you…

Discover how knowing your eating archetypes can give you more peace and freedom with your food choices and eating challenges. Learn more about the Hedonist Archetype, and the seven other most common eating archetypes in my FREE 3-part mini-course: The 8 Eating Archetypes. 

Woman eating for pleasure

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