Learn about why we stress-eat and 6 tips for overcoming the vicious cycle
Stress levels have been on the rise over the years and have especially skyrocketed during the pandemic. This has resulted in a sudden surge in related issues such as the symptoms associated with autoimmune disorders, hair loss, irregular menstrual cycles, and relapses into substances and eating disorders. As a Nutritionist, I have supported my clients through all these issues, but what has been particularly concerning is the rise I’ve seen in emotional eating.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is commonly defined as a coping behavior that people engage in as a response to negative emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, and loneliness, even though they are not hungry. For example, see this article by the Mayo Clinic.
Personally, I think this definition falls short. I believe that we are almost always engaging in emotional eating. I have not met a single person who can tell me that they have never overeaten at a dinner party or scarfed an entire bag of popcorn or candy while watching their favorite movie or television show. I am not saying this to downplay the high levels of stress that many people are currently experiencing. I absolutely believe that is real. What I am saying is that food has a powerful way of lifting or enhancing our mood, even when we’re happy. If we limit our definition of emotional eating to only negative circumstances, we fail to truly understand our relationship with what and when we eat.
If we limit our definition of emotional eating to only negative circumstances, we fail to truly understand our relationship with what and when we eat.
It’s also important to recognize that some people eat less when they experience negative emotions because they completely lose their appetite. Others may feel like food is the only thing they can control in their life, so their ability to restrict what they eat makes them feel empowered, even when they are depriving themselves of essential nutrients that their body needs.
Both responses to negative emotions can be harmful to our health. It’s important to develop a greater awareness of our relationship with food and negative stressors, so we can take steps toward healing our minds and bodies.
Why Do We Want to Eat When We Feel Negative Emotions?
When we feel down or stressed, our bodies release hormones, like cortisol, which make us crave foods that have high concentrations of fat and sugar. As we eat our favorite tasty snacks in response to this stress, like a bag of potato chips or sugary desserts like chocolate cake, our body releases natural hormones that make us feel more relaxed and maybe even happier. In fact, energy rich foods like these affect our brains in many of the same ways as highly addictive drugs. Just like drugs, eating in response to negative emotions can result in a strong feedback loop that can throw the body’s natural systems out of balance, along with dysregulating our appetites.
Should I Eat Energy Dense Food to Boost My Mood if I’m Feeling Really Depressed or Anxious?
Now that we have a better understanding of how foods with high concentrations of fat and sugar can positively affect our mood, it might seem like a good solution for addressing our negative emotions — some people even encourage it. I don’t recommend this approach. Food can be a powerful healer, but when it comes to stress, it’s only a short-term solution. There are more effective long-term solutions for stress eating, without the risk of starting a chronic cycle of dysregulated eating patterns.
6 Tips for Achieving Long-Term Solutions to Stress Eating
1. Identify and address the true source of your anguish.
Are you in a toxic relationship? Is your partner slacking on their share of the housework? Are you spending hours doom-scrolling? Whatever the situation is, it’s important to identify what is causing the negative emotions and either removing it from your life or actively taking steps toward changing the problem that is triggering the stress eating.
2. Developing a support system.
We’ve discussed the issue of suffering in silence on our blog before, as well as the many health benefits of reaching out to friends when times are hard. These tips apply to stress eating as well. Make a list of friends and family members you can call whenever you’re feeling unhappy. You don’t have to talk about the problem if you don’t want to. You can simply reach out to take your mind off whatever is going on. Remember though, it’s important to eventually find someone who you can talk with about the less positive stuff in your life.
Working out is about more than losing weight. It has many other health benefits as well, including the ability to boost your mood. Schedule in some time for movement throughout your day. Even if it’s a short sprint to the car with your kids or dancing to music while you’re getting ready, a little bit of exercise can really boost your energy and your mental health, especially if you go outside and get some sunshine.
4. Distract yourself.
Calling a friend and exercising are great ways to distract yourself from stress and the impulse to stress eat. You can also try distracting yourself with a new hobby or activity that you’ve always wanted to try, or simply giving yourself the permission to schedule some time to pick up old hobbies that have fallen to the wayside. I generally recommend doing something that keeps your mind and hands busy, like playing a game with friends and family, knitting, sewing, or journaling. If you’re interested in journaling, here are some prompts to get you started.
5. Practice mindfulness.
Engage in exercises that enhance your ability to focus your attention on the physical sensations in our body, as well as the sights, smells, and sounds around you. Some examples include meditating or engaging in a gratitude exercise while seated in a comfortable position, lying down, or even walking. You can also practice mindfulness while you’re eating. Growing this awareness will help you lower your stress levels and gain better control over how you respond to stressors, like eating.
6. Prioritizing sleep.
Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night is vital for our minds and bodies. When you aren’t getting enough sleep, you can become more easily frustrated or feel more sensitive than usual. All of which will make you want to stress eat even more and make it harder to resist the impulse to do so. If you’re having trouble sleeping, start by cleaning up your nightly routine so that you are going to bed by a certain time each night. Check out this chart from the CDC to see how much sleep you should be getting each night and to plan the time that you should be getting into bed.
As a final note, keep in mind that while these 6 tips work for most people, sometimes these steps are not enough. If that’s the case, it may be time to consider professional help. Don’t suffer in silence. See this post for a comprehensive list of resources and tips for improving your mental health. If you’re in an acute crisis, you can always call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline to speak with a professional and find resources near you.