“Stress eating,” also called “emotional eating,” refers to eating food in response to feelings rather than to your body’s signals, especially when you are not hungry.
There are many different causes for stress eating. Some people stress eat when they are sad or lonely. Other times, eating can be a way of avoiding problems or tasks.
If we know that it’s bad for us and our goal is to lose weight, why do we continue to eat when we are stressed? Because for most of us, food offers comfort. Moreover, the most unhealthy foods are usually the ones that offer the most comfort.
In times of emotional discomfort, if we only grabbed veggies we’d be a lot better off! Try grabbing a bag of carrot sticks next time you’re lonely—not quite the same satisfaction as a chocolate bar. This is because high-fat, sugary, high-calorie foods make us feel better. The more fattening, sweeter, or the saltier the food, the more feel-good hormones—serotonin and dopamine—are released.
Another cause of stress eating is past emotional trauma. A behavioral health specialist who is trained in treating underlying emotional causes of overeating can help you to deal with past trauma. Your insurer or health care provider can help you find a qualified mental health professional who can help you get to the root of the issue.
How do you know if you’re a stress eater? If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you are an emotional eater:
- Do you eat because you feel there’s nothing else to do?
- Does eating make you feel better when you’re down or less focused on problems when you’re worried about something? Do you ever eat without realizing you’re even doing it?
- Do you often feel guilty or ashamed after eating?
- Do you often eat alone or at odd locations, such as in your car outside your own house?
- After an unpleasant experience, such as an argument, do you eat even if you aren’t feeling hungry?
- Do you crave specific foods when you’re upset, such as chocolate when you feel depressed?
- Do you feel the urge to eat in response to outside cues, like seeing food advertised on television?
If you eat unusually large quantities of food or you often eat until you feel uncomfortably full, you have a problem with binge eating. If you binge eat on a regular basis, please contact your health care professional. This is a serious condition.
How to Stop
If stress, or emotional, eating is the main problem, you may be able to find a solution on your own. There are many positive ways to cope with your stress and emotions rather than eating. However, this will require you to examine and change your habits. If you really want to stop stress eating for good, you need to be committed.
- Identify Triggers – Be aware of things that set you off. Maybe a family member or coworker tends to trigger stress. Or maybe relationship issues make you want to grab ice cream. Be aware of these correlations so you can begin to take active steps to prevent the automatic stress-eating response. In order to find your triggers, keep a journal with you and write down what you ate and how you felt before, during, and after eating. It also helps to note the environment and people around. Be a detective gathering clues and you will start to see connections more easily.
- Setup Diversions – After you identify your triggers, you can set up healthy systems to avoid eating in those situations. For example, if you get stressed at work and always grab candy from the vending machine, instead find a friend who can walk with you to release some of that tension. Added bonus: Walking and talking are excellent stress-relievers! If you get stressed out at home, set up a small meditation space (preferably far away from the kitchen). Start the habit of going there to relax and take deep breaths any time you feel the stress rising. You can also find community groups that share your interests, like painting or reading. Or sign up for a sport. Make a list of healthy ways to relax and reward yourself without food. Then when that overwhelming feeling or emotions creep up, simply reach for that list and find an alternative.
- Get Help – Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Stress eating is a hard habit to break and you may not be able to conquer it alone. Many social workers and psychologists are trained specifically to deal with emotional eaters and to find solutions to curb the habit. A trained professional may be able to help you set boundaries with people who cause you stress or improve your environment altogether. They may also be able to tackle issues that you weren’t even aware were the cause of your stress eating.
Waiting and hoping that emotional eating will change or go away on its own is just wishful thinking. You must take action to get control of your behaviors. Begin taking proactive steps today to find new healthy habits to manage your stress. You’ll be surprised at how much better and more energized you feel throughout the day as a result.