How To Stop Emotional Eating From Stress
Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments.
As anyone whos watching their weight will tell you that hunger is just one of many reasons that people eat. Those with a tendency toward emotional eating are especially vulnerable to making poor choices.
If youre an emotional eater, you may find yourself eating to deal with uncomfortable emotions, using food as a reward when youre happy, and craving sweets or unhealthy snacks when stressed. Dont worryyoure not alone! The following ideas can help you to cut down emotional eating and develop healthier eating habits, even when you’re stressed.
But First What Exactly Is Stress Eating
Stress eating falls under the general umbrella of emotional eating — a pattern where food becomes a self-soothing mechanism to deal with a distressing situation .
Nearly all of us do this on occasion. You might come home late from the office after a difficult day and pick at a pint of chocolate ice-cream, barely noticing you’re eating until your spoon finally hits the bottom of the tub. Or you might find yourself in front of the fridge, munching on leftovers after you’ve argued with a friend — thinking less about the cold pizza you’re eating than about a spiteful comment you made.
Now, these habits don’t necessarily mean you have an issue with stress eating — rather, it’s when food feels like your go-to strategy for coping with stress that it may be time to address it.
Here are some helpful tips to prevent stress eating when you’re stuck at home:
Ways To Stop Stress Eating According To Experts
When we feel stressed, many of us turn to food. And this year more than ever, the coronavirus pandemic has left many of us to stress eat as we seek out food for comfort, out of boredom, or just because it’s there.
There are multiple reasons you may resort to stress eating. “We generally tend to stress eat when we feel overwhelmed or are avoiding something. We may also stress eating if we grew up using that as a tool for emotional well-being,” says Maggie Luther, ND, a naturopathic doctor and Medical Director and Formulator at Care/of .
Hormones may also play a role: “Stress eating can also occur due to certain hormones that course through our bodies at higher concentrations when we are stressed. Cortisol is a well-known stress hormone that can cause us to want to eat more,” says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Another is Ghrelin, dubbed the ‘hunger hormone’. Ghrelin levels can increase with stress and make us feel hungrier.”
The trick is to have ways to break the cycle of stress eating dependence. Here are 9 tips to help break the cycle. Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don’t miss 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
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Take 5 Before You Give In To A Craving
Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Before you even realize what youre doing, youve reached for a tub of ice cream and polished off half of it. But if you can take a moment to pause and reflect when youre hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.
Can you put off eating for five minutes? Or just start with one minute. Dont tell yourself you cant give in to the craving remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to wait.
While youre waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Whats going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, youll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
Set Yourself Up For Success
One of the best ways to respond is by setting yourself up for success when it comes to food.
Where do you usually get your comfort food from? Maybe you keep your pantry or desk well-stocked with your favorite convenience foods or have your DoorDash favorite saved. In many cases, comfort foods can lean towards being calorie-dense.
As a dietitian, I recommend swapping these stress-eating standbys with healthier foods that are higher in nutritional value. These foods can help you be less inclined to associate them with stress relief. Instead, you can work on reframing those foods as things you eat once in a while, outside of an emotional reaction.
In addition, imbalances in blood sugar levels can take a toll on our mood and can amplify cravings. For this reason, I highly suggest keeping high protein foods and snacks on hand to help maintain balanced blood sugar levels. Some snack ideas to try are:
- Hummus and pita
- PB & J sandwich
- Cup of yogurt
Another way to use nutrition to your advantage is to incorporate foods that reduce stress into your regular diet.
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How To Combat Stress Eating
The daily demands of work and home life and even the constant presence of electronic devices puts people at a high risk for stress eating, Dr. Albers says.
The best way to combat stress or emotional eating is to be mindful of what triggers stress eating and to be ready to fight the urge.
If you are someone who is prone to emotional eating, know your triggers, know what stresses you out and be prepared, Dr. Albers says.
Part of being prepared is to arm yourself with healthy snacks, Dr. Albers says. Then if you feel the need to snack, you will at least nourish your body.
Helping to regulate your blood sugar throughout the day is going to keep your body stable and your emotions on a much better playing field, she adds.
Its also a good idea to keep things at your workspace that will help reduce anxiety, like a stress ball. Or try taking a five-minute break every once in a while to close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
Regular exercise and making sure you get enough sleep every night also can help you to better handle the challenges that come up every day, she says.
Consider Seeing A Therapist For Help Regulating Stress And Other Emotions
If youre struggling to get your stress eating under control, know that you are not alone! Many people find it difficult, and benefit from the additional support a therapist provides.
A therapist will be able to help you identify your triggers and develop alternative strategies for coping with stress. You might also find that learning assertiveness skills, time-management skills, or communications skills help you to manage stress more effectively.
You can change your relationship with food and get your emotional wellbeing back, as you learn which strategies will work for you to better manage your emotions.
Most importantly, adds Khouri, remember that we humans are creatures of habit. Just as you might have gotten into a habit that has been negatively impacting your life, you also have potential to develop positive and self-enhancing behaviors that will stick.
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Physical Impact Of Stress
There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:
- High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If the stress does not let up, another hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.
- Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.
It is very easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. But there are characteristics that distinguish them.
Recognizing these subtle differences is the first step towards helping to stop emotional eating patterns.
If Youre A Health And Fitness Pro
Learning how to help clients manage stress and optimize sleep can massively change your clients results.
Theyll get unstuck and finally move forwardwhether they want to eat better, move more, lose weight, or reclaim their health.
Plus, itll give you the confidence and credibility as a specialized coach who can solve the biggest problems blocking any clients progress.
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Is There Such A Thing As Mindless Eating
Mindless eating is when someone eats without paying attention to or enjoying what they are consuming.
An example is eating an entire container of ice cream while watching television, having not intended to eat that much. This behavior usually happens with emotional eating, not eating through hunger.
Reflect On Your Core Values In Those Stressful Moments
“At the beginning of the day, bring to mind a few core values that are important to you, like generosity, compassion, kindness, etc.,” says Wagner. “When you feel the urge to stress-eat, ask yourself ‘What activity can I do right now that is more aligned with my values?’ If well-being is a value, maybe choose to go for a walk or take a calming bath. If relationships are important, try calling a friend. Aligning your stress-relieving strategies with your values can help you manage your stress in healthier ways. This 10-minute active meditation is a great start.”6254a4d1642c605c54bf1cab17d50f1e
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What Is Emotional Eating
Emotional eating can also be defined as stress eating. Food fills a need that goes beyond satisfying hunger. Food actually makes us feel better. Desserts, take-out, fast food, and pizza these are common foods people eat to satisfy emotional hunger.
Common reasons for turning to food as a coping mechanism are:
Indulge Without Overeating By Savoring Your Food
When you eat to feed your feelings, you tend to do so quickly, mindlessly consuming food on autopilot. You eat so fast you miss out on the different tastes and textures of your foodas well as your bodys cues that youre full and no longer hungry. But by slowing down and savoring every bite, youll not only enjoy your food more but youll also be less likely to overeat.
Slowing down and savoring your food is an important aspect of mindful eating, the opposite of mindless, emotional eating. Try taking a few deep breaths before starting your food, putting your utensils down between bites, and really focusing on the experience of eating. Pay attention to the textures, shapes, colors and smells of your food. How does each mouthful taste? How does it make your body feel?
Practice mindful eating
Eating while youre also doing other thingssuch as watching TV, driving, or playing with your phonecan prevent you from fully enjoying your food. Since your mind is elsewhere, you may not feel satisfied or continue eating even though youre no longer hungry. Eating more mindfully can help focus your mind on your food and the pleasure of a meal and curb overeating. See Mindful Eating.
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Are There Feelings Of Regret Or Guilt After Emotional Eating
Giving in to a craving, or eating because of stress can cause feelings of regret, shame, or guilt. These responses tend to be associated with emotional hunger.
On the other hand, satisfying a physical hunger is giving the body the nutrients or calories it needs to function and is not associated with negative feelings.
Not Listening To Your Body
One of the biggest causes of overeating due to stress is simply not recognizing that you are stressed. In other words, youre not eating mindfully.
One of the best paths to avoiding this type of eating is to get in touch with your hunger quotient. This is a tough task at first, but learning to understand how truly hungry you are can be super important to controlling your eating due to stress.
Ask yourself: How hungry am I? And rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being that you’re so full you need to unbutton your pants, and 10 that you’re so hungry you might pass out. Your goal should be to keep your hungry between a 4 and a 6 at any given time. You do not want to be starving or stuffed.
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How To Avoid Stress Eating
This article was co-authored by Klare Heston, LCSW. Klare Heston is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker based in Cleveland, Ohio. With experience in academic counseling and clinical supervision, Klare received her Master of Social Work from the Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983. She also holds a 2-Year Post-Graduate Certificate from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, as well as certification in Family Therapy, Supervision, Mediation, and Trauma Recovery and Treatment .There are 7 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 8,597 times.
When you’re experiencing a negative emotion like stress, you may reach for food as a form of comfort or distraction. While this may work in the short term, it is just as likely to make you feel more stressed. Stress eating can cause you to gain unwanted weight, spend more than you want, and lose track of the things that make you feel good. Luckily, there are many ways to break this habit. As suggested by the Mayo Clinic, the first step is to start by paying more attention to your stress levels and eating habits.XTrustworthy SourceMayo ClinicEducational website from one of the world’s leading hospitalsGo to source Remember, if you suspect you have an eating disorder, get help from a professional.
Ways To Stop Stress Eating
The key to getting rid of emotional eating is to slow down, identify what’s causing the craving, and make gradual changes. Try to keep those “temptation foods” in the back of the pantry where you can see them, and bring the healthy items front and center. You know your body and mind better than anyone else, so maybe that “out of sight, out of mind” mentality works best for you and keeping junk food out of the house is best. Make sure to eat three balanced meals daily and avoid skipping meals, as this can lead to overeating later on in the day. When it comes to any habit, it’s hard to quit something cold turkey and not replace it with another action. Find something else to do that’s more productive and can foster the creation of new healthy habits, like:
- Going for a walk
- Having a warm cup of tea
- Reading a book
- Crafting, coloring, drawing, or painting
- Brushing your teeth
- Chewing a piece of gum
- Drinking a tall glass of water or naturally flavored seltzer
- Going to sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques like meditating, stretching, yoga, or taking a bath
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Find A Simple Distraction
“With both boredom and stress, the best thing you can do to avoid eating for the wrong reasons is to get a change of scenery, says Mastela. Get some fresh air, go for a walk, do something different, read a book.
“If I’m feeling like I’m about to eat for the wrong reasons, I paint a clear coat on my nails because painting your nails is actually quite calming and can distract you from a stressor, while giving you something specific to do so you’re not bored, and your nails will be wet, making it harder to eat ,” she says.
Embrace Radical Acceptance Of Life’s Stressors And Of Your Reactions To Them
When it comes to emotional eating, Khouri encourages her clients to practice of radical acceptance, a skill from dialectical behavioral therapy. Radical acceptance entails actively accepting that life is at times stressful, or sad, or scary rather than eating to fight off the stress.
Take the earlier example of a fight with your good friend. You may be ruminating over the exchange, defending that hurtful remark you made in the heat of the moment .
Rather than avoiding or pushing against reality by losing yourself in the distraction of food, try to intentionally accept the situation and your feelings about it. By accepting it, you can comprehensively understand the whole scenario, and decide whether you want to apologize or move on.
And remember, even if you do cope by overeating, it’s not the end of the world. “Often we end up beating ourselves for overeating,” says Khorui, “when really it is just an adaptive mechanism to handle difficult moments in life.” Sometimes, we don’t react as well as we’d like to situations. That’s okay! Give yourself some radical acceptance, too.
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What Can We Do At The Moment
It may not be as easy as it sounds, but when youre feeling stressed and crave food as a distraction, you have better options. Reducing sources of stress is one major part of managing stress. Finding productive ways to cope with stress is the other, Dennett tells us. When feeling the urge to stress eat, it can help to ask, What do I need right now? What you need isnt a box of cookies, per se, its to feel calmer, which is a perfectly legitimate need!
This goes back to the act of mindfulness and asking yourself why youre going to eat what youre reaching for. If its not true hunger but an emotional resolve, take a step back. Then you can ask yourself what tools are at your disposal to soothe and calm yourself. You might decide that a walk, some meditation, a favorite movie, a talk with a friend, or cuddle time with a pet or partner will meet your needs. If you always reach for food when youre stressed, youve formed a habit around it and may not even be considering other options, Dennett explains.