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How to Stop Stress Eating; Feeding Your Body and Not Your Emotions

Danielle Dent-Breen's picture
Stop stress eating

Everyone eats for comfort now and then. Maybe it is when you’ve had a stressful day at work, or at home with the children. Maybe it’s after an upsetting argument with your significant other. Perhaps you’re most likely to stress eat on the days when you are particularly hormonal. Whatever the case, emotional eating can quickly derail your health goals, or even cause you to gain weight.


Identifying the problem: How to know if you’re stress eating

The easiest way to stop stress eating is to identify the signs of emotional eating before you begin. Experts suggest that you run through a quick mental check before indulging. Here are the four signs that you may be stress eating:

1. You are eating, but not physically hungry. Ask yourself, “would I eat broccoli right now?” If the answer is yes, then you are really hungry, and should go ahead and eat. Consider how long it has been since your last meal. Is it reasonable that you might be hungry again? Is your body sending physical signs that you are hungry, such as rumbling stomach or low energy?

2. You have difficulty finding food that satisfies you. If you are not satisfied, you are more likely to continue eating mindlessly, or continue scavenging for food, trying to meet that need.

3. You are triggered to crave a specific food by emotions, such as boredom, anger, anxiety, or sadness.

4. You are eating without paying attention to the taste of the food. This often applies with foods consumed in front of the TV or while driving, for instance.

Identify the cause: What’s driving the need to stress eat to begin with?

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Emotional eating provides a sense of comfort, and we often use food to numb or distract us from emotional pain and stress. When we are under stress, our instinct is to relieve that discomfort as quickly as possible, and we often use food to hide emotionally from our pain. When we are under stress, our adrenal glands release cortisol, increasing our appetite. In addition, stress also blocks the function of ghrelin—the “hunger hormone”---that regulates our appetite and tells us when we are full.

As a matter of fact, a 2015 study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism showed that when women eat sugar, it actually lessons our cortisol response to stress. In other words, eating high-sugar foods actually makes us feel better, at least temporarily. This can have an addictive effect, where your body begins to rely on these sugary-foods in order to calm down.

What can I do to change my habits and stop stress eating in its tracks?

1. Focus on the real issue at hand. Pay attention to your emotions, and try to identify what it is that you actually need. Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel your emotions—anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, fatigue—and try to understand what it is that you can do to change your situation.

2. Think long-term. Try to focus on your long-term goals. Do you have a weight-loss goal in mind? Are you trying to gain better control of your blood sugar? Are you trying to set a better example of healthy eating for your children?

3. Go deep. Practice being in the moment, and focusing on relaxation and stress management. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Obesity found that women who underwent mindfulness training, and learned to recognize hunger, pay attention to taste, and reduce stress were less apt to stress eat and lost a significantly greater amount of belly fat than the control group.

4. Practice self-care. Pay attention to the little things that you can do to decrease stress and help you deal with your anxious thoughts. Consider activities such as journaling, self-massage, taking a brisk walk, aromatherapy, drawing a bubble bath, or calling a friend.

5. If all else fails...Go ahead and indulge, in a sensible manner. There will be times when you will find that the comfort food provides is really what you need. When those moments come, experts suggest, pay attention, and really enjoy it. Sit at the table rather than eating mindlessly in front of the TV. Use a plate, instead of shoveling in bite after bite standing in front of the fridge or leaning over the sink. Pay attention to the taste and texture of the food, relax and really enjoy it. This will help you to consume a moderate amount of the decadent treat, that won’t derail your diet.

Understand that there will be bumps in the road, and times when despite your best efforts, you will find yourself stress eating. In those moments, remember that small changes toward healthy eating will add up, and as you practice these techniques, you can put an end to emotional stress eating once and for all.