Preventing Stress Eating

What is Emotional Eating

If you’ve ever made room for dessert even though you’re already full or dove into a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, you’ve experienced emotional eating. Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach.

Using food from time to time as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism, you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.

Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you consumed. You feel guilty for messing up and not having more willpower.

There are several types of emotional eating with stress-eating being the most popular kind during the holiday season.

How does stress affect your appetite?

When stress is chronic, it leads to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief. Cortisol also increases accumulation of fat around the midsection - so you're more likely to pack on belly fat when you're stress eating. 

Ways to Prevent Stress Eating

  1. Keep the bad foods out of your house! There's no reason to stock up on ice cream or cookies if you know you have a penchant for snacking on them when stressed. A lot of times, emotional eating happens without being aware, so you might finish off half a box before you even realize what you're doing!
  2. Exercise. Low or moderate intensity exercise can decrease cortisol levels and alleviate stress. Bonus benefit! You burn extra calories ;)
  3. Wait 10 minutes before giving in to a craving. Drink some water, count, watch a little more TV, just get your mind off of it, and if it's a stress craving, it normally goes away.
  4. Get Social Support. Sometimes just telling your loved ones about your stress eating can help you be more aware or mindful of your habits. 
  5. Consider the root cause. Is there something you can do to remove or reduce this stress from your life? If not, are there other ways you can cope with the stress, whether it's exercising, journaling, talking to someone, coloring in those cool adult color books, reading, etc?