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How to Stop Stress Eating

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

There’s a reason people refer to certain dishes as “comfort foods.” Eating these particular foods just makes you feel better. Maybe a deep-dish lasagna evokes happy memories of your Italian grandmother’s cozy kitchen, or perhaps you crave the chocolate chip cookies your mom gave you as a reward for finishing your chores.

Turning to food for comfort is referred to as emotional eating, and can be innocuous in moderation. Unfortunately, many people use emotional eating as a way to cope with negative emotions, boredom, frustration, or stressful events.  However, the long-term health consequences of emotional eating outweigh the temporary comfort that this behavior provides.

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Why You Turn to Food When Stressed

While food can provide emotional comfort for its ability to bring back special memories, there are additional reasons one can find solace in certain foods. To illustrate this point, let’s think about what most of us reach for when we’ve had a bad day. Is it a bag of chips or a banana? A snack cake or a stalk of celery? Ice cream or an avocado?

For most, it’s likely the salty, sugary, or fatty foods one typically craves when stress levels are high. In stressful situations, our bodies produce more cortisol than usual.  Cortisol is a stress hormone related to the fight-or-flight response that, when it persists, may increase motivation to eat. Our bodies associate the mood-boosting feeling with eating unhealthy foods such as those loaded with carbohydrates or sugar. Unfortunately, the euphoria is fleeting due to the subsequent drop in blood sugar and mood. Giving in to your junk food cravings or overeating may result in feelings of shame or guilt, which may, in turn, increase overall stress.

Potential Health Issues From Stress Eating

Stress eating can become a negative cycle. Stress on its own results in physical issues such as increased heart rate and high blood pressure. When one’s default response to stress is emotional eating, it may increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder as well, such as binge-eating disorder.

Bingeing is an eating disorder with similarities to anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Like bulimia sufferers, binge eaters will eat large amounts of food in a specific period. Binge eating episodes typically involve a lack of control over what or how much is consumed. However, binge eaters do not attempt to purge themselves of the food they eat, nor do they typically engage in compensatory behaviors such as excessive exercise, fasting, or using diuretics or laxatives. This is why binge-eating often results in weight gain and potentially obesity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, binge-eating is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting both genders and people of all ages.

How to Overcome Stress Eating

Although eating disorders like binge-eating can be caused in part by genetics, there are ways we can prevent the development of negative emotional eating behaviors. 

First, pinpoint and manage stressors. People experience stress in different ways. If we are able to identify and gain a better understanding of our stressors, perhaps we can reduce our exposure to them. If avoidance isn’t an option, stress can be reduced with deep breathing, tai chi, yoga, or meditation.  Any distraction — exercise, writing a blog, weeding the garden — will also help to calm down after a stressful time and help lower cortisol levels.

Second, evaluate the type of hunger; emotional hunger is different from physical hunger. Physical hunger is caused by a hormone called ghrelin, which increases before eating and decreases for about three hours afterward. Additionally, a grumbling tummy is the body’s cue for physical hunger, but not emotional hunger. On the other hand, if one’s appetite grows quickly and urgently or happens after one has just eaten, this is likely emotional hunger. Emotional hunger is also associated with cravings for specific or unhealthy food.  

Third, eat mindfully, not mindlessly. Have you ever picked up one cookie only to reach down for another and realize you’ve eaten an entire box? That’s an example of mindless eating. Mindless eating, or eating food without awareness or intention, is a behavior that may stem from emotional eating. Mindful eating is just the opposite:.  A large part of eating mindfully is heeding bodily cues; in other words, eating only when the body signals physical hunger, and ceasing consumption when the body signals satiety.  

Fourth, seek support from a close friend or family member. Emotional eaters are at a higher risk of engaging in negative eating behaviors when they’re dealing with their stressors on their own. 

Lastly, slim down your pantry. If you’re prone to stress eating, it’s a good idea to replace the junk food in your kitchen with healthier choices or with snacks with fewer calories.

Therapy is one of the best treatment options

Emotional eating, chronic stress, and eating disorders like binge-eating, anorexia, and bulimia all can also be treated successfully with psychotherapy. A mental health professional can help provide insight, knowledge, and understanding of these difficulties, and can help replace negative thoughts and behaviors with more positive ones. Therapy can also help establish coping strategies for managing stress in healthier ways.

If the emotional eating or eating disorder is linked to perceived body image or a preoccupation with body weight, a therapist might suggest adding a nutritionist or dietitian as part of one’s overall treatment team. Nutritional counseling can be a helpful way to establish a better relationship with food and maintain a healthy weight. Each person’s particular psychotherapy treatment plan is developed based on one’s individual needs. A first step to establishing a healthier, less stressful life is to make an appointment with a compassionate therapist. With Therapy will help optimize the search process to find the therapist that is the best fit. Check out With Therapy and get started today.

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