Health / Mental Health

How to Know When You’re Stress Eating (and How to Stop)

We all get stressed—it’s part of life. Unfortunately, some of us find ourselves in this mental state more often than others—an estimated 55 percent of us, according to The American Institute of Stress. There is no shortage of reasons we might feel stressed at a given time, with the ongoing pandemic, inflation rates, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and political strife in our country being a few contributing factors. The biggest differences among us when it comes to stress, however, is how we choose to cope with it.

Some of us turn towards things like exercise, meditation or the simple comfort of loved ones in times of stress, while others turn to the simplicity of food. That last one is quite common and is a phenomenon known as stress eating. Also known as emotional eating, stress eating is essentially the practice of using food to help us cope with how we’re feeling, explains Emma Laing, Ph.D., R.D.N. is the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Emotional eating is nothing out of the ordinary—it’s simply our own personal effort to gain instant gratification when we may be feeling particularly low. While eating, especially comfort foods and in large amounts, can temporarily remove the heightened, negative feelings, Laura Cipullo, R.D., registered dietitian, yoga instructor and founder of Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition and Yoga, points out that the stress anxiety usually returns post-meal—with a vengeance. “Once the person is finished with the food or snack, they may actually feel even worse due to guilt resulting from said stress eating,” she explains. “This tends to cause more anxiety and thus more stress eating.”

Stress eating can happen to anyone and can be quite difficult to cope with mentally, emotionally and physically. Here, nutrition experts share the key signs that you might be stress eating and how to cope and churn your habits.

You develop food cravings when you feel emotionally charged

While this can be considered somewhat normal and helpful in some cases, functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T, points out that eating while stressed is not ideal—and there are plenty of reasons as to why. “When we’re stressed or anxious, our body and nervous system are typically in ‘fight or flight’ mode, which means the nerves and blood supply to the gut have been restricted,” she says. “It’s also really difficult to eat mindfully, chew our food thoroughly and actually enjoy our food if we’re eating while feeling anxious or stressed, which helps explain why eating while stressed can also negatively impact digestion for many people.” If you find this happening to you, she recommends seeking alternative ways for managing and reducing stress like meditation, yoga, therapy, Reiki sessions, calling family or friends more regularly, etc.

You find yourself wondering, “What did I just eat?”

Have you ever eaten an entire pint of ice cream only to realize shortly after that you never even intended to indulge in that treat at all? Maybe you meant to opt for a healthier dessert, like frozen grapes, or you meant to only eat ¼ of the pint. If this is how you stress eat, Cipullo emphasizes the importance of learning how to practice mindful eating. “Organize your kitchen to be filled with water bottles, seltzer, fresh fruits and veggies, individual snack packs of popcorn, instant oatmeal, and ice pops (Think Good Pops),” she says. “The snacks are temporary replacements until you are able to engage in mindful eating throughout the day and the night.”

You eat well past the point of feeling physically full or even “stuffed”

There’s a fine line between stress eating and binge-eating, notes Volpe. “Both can manifest as eating past the point of physical fullness and are not too concerning if they occur once in a while, however, it’s important to recognize if either is becoming a regular pattern and interfering with health or quality of life,” she says. She recommends first identifying any underlying triggers and then working with an intuitive eating dietitian and therapist to get custom guidelines and emotional support around food. “It can also be helpful to practice tuning into physical hunger cues and learn mindful eating habits, with help from an expert,” she adds.

You’re frequently indulging in midnight snacks

Cipullo warns that you may be stress eating if you find yourself lying in bed, agonizing over the day’s events or tomorrow’s anticipated events and find yourself rummaging through the pantry to boost your spirits. If this sounds like you, she suggests stopping what you’re doing and taking a shower or splashing cold water on your face to stimulate the vagus nerve and help you engage your calming system known as the parasympathetic nervous system. “Next, make yourself some calming lavender tea, rub a few drops of lavender oil on your wrists and behind your ears and gently get back into bed,” she says. “Repeat to yourself or write in a journal, ‘I am enough, I am calm, I am safe, I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can.’”

You feel out of control when you’re eating

“It’s one thing to indulge on your own terms, unapologetically; it’s another to indulge and then have instant regret due to feeling out of control with food choices,” says Volpe. “Stress eating goes beyond logic and will; it’s about soothing uncomfortable feelings in the moment.” She recommends trying meal prepping and focusing on consuming three balanced meals daily with a few snacks in between to avoid impulse and out-of-control eating.

Your to-do list is a mile long, but you’re snacking instead of tackling it

Are you the person who is eating cereal or chips at your desk while studying or perhaps to avoid the stress of studying? If so, Cipullow emphasizes the importance of planning your meals for the day ahead of time. “Plan breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as 2 to 3 snacks, and make sure everything is pre-portioned with enough calories,” she says. “Also plan stress breaks that have nothing to do with food—take a walk, read a superficial magazine, call a friend, do laundry or whatever helps to make you feel sane.” She advises against using food as your stress-relieving technique and instead thinking of it as fuel for your body and brain.

Mental Health Nutrition


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