Emotional eating is a pattern of eating where people use food to help them deal with stressful situations. Many people experience emotional eating at one time or another. It could show itself as eating a bag of chips when bored or eating a chocolate bar after a difficult day at work.
Stress eating, hormones and hunger
Stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a role.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions. These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to excess weight.
Why stress causes people to overeat
So how do you know if you’re a stress eater? There are clear signs that you eat because of emotional difficulty. You are an emotional eater if you answer yes to any of the following questions:
- After an unpleasant experience, such as an argument, do you eat even if you aren’t feeling hungry?
- Do you crave specific foods when you’re upset, such as always desiring chocolate when you feel depressed?
- Do you feel the urge to eat in response to outside cues like seeing food advertised on television?
- Do you eat because you feel there’s nothing else to do?
- Does eating make you feel better when you’re down or less focused on problems when you’re worried about something?
If you eat unusually large quantities of food or you regularly eat until you feel uncomfortable to the point of nausea, you may be experiencing binge eating. If you binge eat on a regular basis, please speak to your healthcare professional.2 But if stress eating is the main problem, you may be able to find a solution on your own.
Overcoming stress eating
There are different ways to control emotional eating and turn your stress into a more positive experience. But all three methods require you to examine and change your habits.
You do need to make sure that you are not physiologically hungry and that you are not skipping meals. It is harder to stop and/or not participate in emotional eating if you are also physiologically hungry. This is why it is important to first identify what is going on.
Find the Source of Stress
Many people have stress triggers that cause them to eat. Perhaps there are relationship issues that cause pain. Or perhaps family or work stress has gotten out of control.
If you can identify your triggers, then you can take active steps to tackle stress before it gets out of control.
So, how do you find triggers? Keeping a journal helps. Carry it with you and jot down notes throughout the day. Write down what you eat and how you felt when you ate it. Also, take notes on the environment and the people who were with you when you ate. These may provide clues to your triggers.3
Find New Ways to Relieve Stress
Once you know what causes you to eat more, set up healthy systems to avoid eating in those situations.
For example, if your work environment is stressful. Identify one friend who can walk with you during your lunch hour to avoid excess calories and promote healthy activity. Do you get stressed out at home? Set up a small meditational space or quiet corner where you can go to relax or take deep breaths. If school is a source of stress, find community groups that share your interest or sign up for a sport.3
Get Help for Emotional Stress
If your own methods don’t stop stress eating, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many social workers and psychologists are trained specifically to deal with emotional eaters and find solutions to curb the habit.
A trained professional may be able to help you set boundaries with people who cause you stress or change your environment for the better. They may also be able to tackle issues that cause you to ruminate or run to the fridge when you don’t need food.