Stress eating can be a vicious cycle. It begins with feeling overwhelmed and ends with guilt. Somewhere in between, you’ve polished off a batch of brownies and a box of pasta (zero shame). Although this may feel satisfying at the moment, it can lead to overeating and can typically leave you feeling worse than when you began. To get to the bottom of this impulse, we spoke with Anna Baker, founder and principal nutritionist for Nutrition Journey LLC, and Carrie Dennett, M.P.H., R.D.N., C.D., owner of Nutrition by Carrie. Read on as we uncover this reaction and learn how to separate negative emotions from eating.
How can we tell when we’re stress eating?
Stress eating—or emotional eating—is the act of using food as a way to ease or suppress negative emotions, such as anxiety, boredom, sadness, and anger. Stress can be brought on by big changes and events in your life. However, most often it’s a result of everyday stressors. It can be hard to identify when it’s the latter, but it’s important that you do. Noticing when you’re eating to satisfy strong emotions, rather than to satisfy your body, is paramount.
“Mindful eating is a great way to figure out when you’re stress eating,” Baker says. “Mindfulness has been researched over the past few decades as a great option to reduce stress and promote health.” Ways to practice mindful eating include learning your body’s hunger signals, realizing when you’re full, eating without distractions, and asking yourself why you’re eating. “Find out if you’re you eating because you’re hungry or to satisfy emotional needs. Things to think about are: Does the hunger come on suddenly? Do you crave specific foods? Do you feel unsatisfied when you eat a ‘normal’ quantity? Is there a feeling of guilt after?” If you answer yes to most of the above, it’s possible that you’re stress eating.
How does stress eating affect us?
“The reason we stress eat is because it can be quite effective in the moment,” Dennett says. “We get that hit of dopamine, and we feel better. Of course, in the long term, this can be counterproductive because the food doesn’t help us address the deeper causes of our stress. Then, if we feel guilty for stress eating, that can further add to our stress.” Ultimately, stress eating is a way to sweep feelings of being overwhelmed, under pressure, or anxious under the rug. It can’t effectively treat the cause—it only covers it up. Leaving those emotions unresolved can take a large toll on your mental state.
Stress eating doesn’t stop at your emotions, though. It can negatively affect you physically, too. “Because the top food picks for stress eating tend to not be very nutritious, if it happens often, over time that could be an issue,” Dennett explains. Overeating unhealthy comfort foods can lead to low energy, feelings of sickness, physical discomfort, and a halt in weight loss or maintenance. “Also, when some people stress eat, they are actually bingeing, and binge eating disorder, like any eating disorder, carries significant health risks,” she adds.
Binge Eating Disorder
“Binge eating disorder is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States. Two out of three people with this disorder are obese. However, you do not have to be overweight to suffer from this disorder,” Baker explains. “This disorder goes hand in hand with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and other health issues. This is an extreme version of stress eating. It has been studied to show that there are many mental and physical health issues that come with unhealthy consumptions of calories in one sitting.” This could mean weight gain, high cholesterol, heart problems, diabetes, and other major health conditions. Binge eating disorder—as well as any other negative relationships with food—should be brought up to your doctor or a mental health professional.
What can we do at the moment?
It may not be as easy as it sounds, but when you’re feeling stressed and crave food as a distraction, you have better options. “Reducing sources of stress is one major part of managing stress. Finding productive ways to cope with stress is the other,” Dennett tells us. “When feeling the urge to stress eat, it can help to ask, ‘What do I need right now?’ What you need isn’t a box of cookies, per se, it’s to feel calmer, which is a perfectly legitimate need!”
This goes back to the act of mindfulness and asking yourself why you’re going to eat what you’re reaching for. If it’s not true hunger but an emotional resolve, take a step back. “Then you can ask yourself what tools are at your disposal to soothe and calm yourself. You might decide that a walk, some meditation, a favorite movie, a talk with a friend, or cuddle time with a pet or partner will meet your needs. If you always reach for food when you’re stressed, you’ve formed a habit around it and may not even be considering other options,” Dennett explains.
Whether we like it or not, sometimes we’re going to choose to eat as our stress reliever. That’s completely fine! What’s important to remember here is to eat mindfully and make healthy choices. A bag of chips could fit the bill. However, carrots and hummus is a healthier and just as (if not more) satisfying option.
“[With] mindful eating techniques, you can often enjoy many foods, as the process is slowed down. The amount of time and thinking spent on each bite reduces the likelihood of overeating,” Baker says. “Otherwise, the best foods to consume are healthy alternatives that will help to reduce stress and anxiety.” She recommends foods high in vitamin B6, magnesium, and omega-3s, such as leafy greens, avocados, blueberries, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, and salmon. Raw fruits and vegetables are also delicious and full of satisfying fiber.
“The bottom line is to be mindful, be curious, and be compassionate,” Dennett advises. “Trying to stamp out stress eating will be futile—and possibly even more stressful—if you aren’t looking for more meaningful solutions that can address the root causes of stress.” Reflect on what is causing you to feel stress in the first place—maybe a toxic person, life event, or matter at work—and start there.
As always, if you’re experiencing anything mentioned above and need more help, contact your doctor or a mental health professional.