Stress Eating: Why It Is, Why We Do It, and How to Stop

Stress Eating: Why It Is, Why We Do It, and How to Stop

If you’ve ever reached for a candy bar to cure your broken heart, this blog is for you. 

Emotional eating is common, especially among women. But emotional eating usually doesn’t lead to healthy choices. We typically crave foods high in fat, sugar, and salt when we are stressed, which doesn’t do our bodies any favors. 

Learn how to distinguish emotional eating and what to do when it strikes. 

How Emotional Eating Differs from Physical Hunger

Emotional eating is just like it sounds – eating food not because our body needs energy, but in response to an emotional trigger. The reasons behind emotional eating can be varied. Some women eat when tired or bored, others when they experience stress from work or home. 

Emotional eating isn’t always associated with negative emotions. Some of us (*raises hand*) use food as a reward, often eating when we’re not hungry, but simply because “we deserve it.” 

Women are more likely to struggle with emotional eating than men; as many as 20% of all women experience it regularly. It’s not uncommon. Some women emotionally eat only once in a while. But others emotionally eat regularly, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure or blood sugar, and other harmful consequences.

Emotional eating often comes on suddenly and has no correlation to our physical need for nourishment. It’s that “that was stressful, and I need chocolate NOW” feeling. When we eat purely in response to emotions, we often feel ashamed or guilty – but not satisfied.

Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on gradually and is linked to the last time you ate. You’ll likely notice physical symptoms like a growling stomach or feeling low on energy. When we eat because of physical hunger, we’re often left feeling satisfied and energized.

5 Tips to Curb Emotional Eating

Emotional eating can create unhealthy habits. That’s why it’s crucial to examine your eating patterns and nip emotional eating in the bud when possible.

You can start to address your emotional eating with these five easy tips.

1. Practice Mindful Eating

Perhaps the most important way to stop emotional eating is to identify it before it starts. Practice mindful eating by focusing on the emotions and physical sensations you feel the next time you want to eat. Before you reach for that pantry or open the fridge, take a moment to check in with yourself. 

What are your emotions? What are you experiencing physically? Are you eating because you’re hungry or in response to stress, tiredness, anger, or another feeling?

If you identify emotion as the reason you want to eat, consider another healthy way to discharge those feelings. 

2. De-Stress

Stress is the most common reason people overeat. We’ve all been there: life’s challenges catch up with us, so we soothe the stress with a bowl of ice cream or a bag of chips. 

But if we can get ahead of the stress and find healthy ways to cope with those stressors, we’re less likely to overeat in the first place.

There are plenty of ways to channel that stress into something productive, including:

  • Exercise (working out is a great way to release feel-good chemicals that will squash your stress).
  • Call a friend or family member or get together in-person if possible. Personal connection is a great way to improve your mood.
  • Do something creative. Paint, draw, sew, write – whatever you do to create, channel your stress into a new project.
  • Journal your thoughts, anxieties, and stress. Pen and paper are surprisingly effective tools for relieving stress.
  • Meditate and breathe. Sometimes a few minutes of shutting your brain off and taking some deep breaths can lower your stress significantly.

3. Remove Temptation

You can’t emotionally eat your favorite junk food if it’s not in the house to begin with. If you know you gravitate toward sugary treats when life gets hard, don’t bring them into the house in the first place. 

Because emotional eating comes on so suddenly, we usually grab whatever we can find near us. They’re usually our “comfort foods,” those that we think make us feel better when emotions are high. But if we don’t have those treats on hand, the sudden cravings have time to subside (because the LAST thing I want to do when I’m stressed is drive to the store to get my fave goodies!). 

4. Make Healthy Swaps

Sometimes, emotional eating is just gonna happen, whether we’re trying to be intentional about it or not. In those instances, you can reduce caloric intake (and lessen those feelings of guilt and shame afterward) by making healthy swaps.

Craving sugar? Go for an apple or some yogurt with honey. Want something salty? Try some roasted almonds. Want chocolate? Grab a square of dark chocolate and enjoy. 

Those healthy alternatives will get you over your emotional cravings without undermining your nutrition goals.

5. Find a Distraction

When the desire to “eat your feelings” hits, distract yourself with something else. 

Start by noticing the craving (this goes back to mindfulness). Once you’ve determined that it’s emotional hunger and not physical hunger, you can work on creating a distraction.

Don’t beat yourself up for it – those emotionally-charged eating habits are hard to break. Then, tell yourself, “I notice that I am feeling stressed and want to eat because of that stress. I’m going to do something else for 10 minutes. If I still want to eat after 10 minutes, I’ll find a healthy snack.”

Then, distract yourself with another activity for 10 minutes. Read a book, go for a walk, listen to a podcast, or sit outside in the sunshine. Once those 10 minutes are up, your emotions will likely be more in check, and you’ll be glad you didn’t eat that box of cookies. 

If you’re an emotional eater, you’re not alone. But you don’t need to let your feelings determine what’s on your fork. You can overcome emotional eating by focusing on the root causes behind your hunger.

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