What Is Stress Eating?

Do you open the refrigerator or pantry during times of stress or pressure? If so, you’re definitely not alone. Stress eating, or emotional eating, occurs when you’re feeling stressed, tired, angry, or another related emotion. You turn to food and eat to soothe yourself, even if you’re not hungry.

Did You Know?
When you are under stress, cortisol and adrenaline, two hormones that control appetite, increase. This can make it confusing to determine if you are physically or emotionally hungry.

Emotional eating can affect your physical and mental health in negative ways, so it’s important to find strategies to manage it.

What Are the Symptoms?

Emotional hunger tends to come on suddenly. It is unrelated to the last time you ate and often involves a specific craving, such as for something salty, like chips, or sweet, like a candy bar. Physical hunger, on the other hand, develops gradually. It is related to the last time you ate.

There are several symptoms of emotional eating, including:

  • eating when feeling stressed
  • eating even if you are not hungry or are full
  • eating to feel better
  • eating to reward yourself
  • eating until you are stuffed
  • eating to feel safe
  • eating because you lack control around food

Emotional eating shouldn’t be confused with binge eating. Binge eating disorder is a serious illness. Binge eating occurs when you consume a large amount of food in a short period of time and lack control over eating during the binge episode.

Signs and Symptoms of Binge Eating

Emotional eating relates to consuming food as a way to comfort negative feelings. Often, those who are emotional eaters feel shame, guilt, and regret. This can lead to a cycle of unhealthy eating practices.

What Are the Causes?

Emotional eating can stem from a variety of things. Some of them include:

  • stress related to work or unemployment, finances, or relationships
  • exhaustion
  • depression
  • health issues

Additionally, certain times of the year can lead to emotional eating. For example, you may find yourself engaging in emotional eating during the holidays as you tackle many stress- and anxiety-inducing tasks such as shopping, traveling, visiting family, and socializing. The winter months can also cause seasonal affective disorder, which may trigger emotional eating.

You may also find yourself engaging in emotional eating because of habits established in childhood. If your family rewarded behavior with food during your childhood, you may have developed emotional eating tendencies. Research suggests that children who engage in emotional eating do so because of their parents’ emotional feeding behaviors.

Tips to Avoid Emotional Eating

Whether you find yourself eating emotionally as a way of calming your nerves or as a way of rewarding yourself, it’s important to address the situation. Here are some tips to help:

1. Understand Your Emotions

Before you can change your emotional eating habits, it’s important that you understand your feelings. What causes you to feel stressed, anxious, or angry? Can you describe what these feel like?

Negative emotions can stem from a number of situations. You need to be aware when these arise so you can change your behaviors surrounding them.

Try keeping a stress journal to document when you feel stressed. This will help you identify trends and implement strategies to curb negative emotions and avoid emotional eating.

Once you’re aware of your feelings, you can ask yourself if you are really hungry when you head for the refrigerator, convenience store, or snack drawer.

2. Keep Track of Your Consumption

Like a stress journal, a diary of your emotional eating may help you change your habits. You may discover patterns in your behaviors, which can help you break an emotional eating cycle. Keeping track of your emotions and the foods you eat for comfort can also be revealing. Do you feel guilty after finishing a salty bag of potato chips or a sweet container of ice cream?

You can also use this journal to rate your hunger and fullness before and after meals. This may help you be more in tune with your body’s needs. If you are not sure if you are hungry, try waiting 10 to 15 minutes and then check back in with yourself.

Your eating journal may also be helpful to your doctors, counselors, and registered dietitians, should you decide to seek professional help.

3. Choose Healthier Foods and Practice Portion Control

While you can’t cut out food entirely to change your emotional eating habits, you can make healthier eating choices. Stock up on healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Choose more nutritious snacks like air-popped corn or trail mix. Enjoying a cup of tea can be relaxing during times of stress.

In addition to choosing healthy foods, make sure to keep your portions under control to avoid overeating. Put snacks into individually sized plastic bags and only eat what is in the bag. This will help you enjoy your snack without eating too much and feeling guilty later.

Eating balanced meals and snacks throughout the day, including a source of protein and carbohydrates, will help keep your blood sugars stable. This, in turn, can prevent cravings and extreme hunger later in the day.

4. Maintain Healthy Habits

Getting enough exercise and sleep are important parts of a healthy lifestyle. Incorporating regular exercise into your schedule can reduce emotional eating tendencies. Doing something physical as opposed to eating can make you feel better and reduce stress.

Make sure you are getting enough shuteye. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. A lack of sleep can make you more likely to snap and give in to negative emotions. Build in a nightly routine that helps you settle down and go to sleep at the same time every night.

5. Practice Mindfulness

Another way to change emotional eating habits is to practice mindfulness. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can decrease binge eating and emotional eating. Being mindful, or being in the moment, can make you more aware of your emotions and your emotional eating behaviors.

Another way to be mindful of your eating is to avoid eating in front of the television. Instead, eat at the dining room or kitchen table. This will help you avoid any distractions that can trigger you to overeat.

When you are eating, slow down. Take time to taste and savor every bite of food.

When to Seek Help

These tips and techniques are a great way to break the emotional eating cycle. But if you’re unable to control your emotional eating yourself, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. A therapist can help you identify the reasons you may be engaging in emotional eating and create strategies to change your behaviors.