If all you want is a big slice of chocolate cake whenever you feel stressed out about a big work project, family issues or social obligations, you're not alone. In fact, stress eating is a common behavior that 27% of adults deal with. But why does eating relieve stress, and what makes you crave certain foods when you're upset?
This article will answer these questions and more by going over the causes of emotional eating, common stress eating symptoms and tips to help stop stress eating. Keep reading to learn how to overcome emotional eating and deal with your stress in a more positive way.
What Are the Causes of Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating occurs when you turn to food to make yourself feel better. Eating is used as a coping mechanism rather than to satisfy hunger. Typically, the driving force behind emotional eating is stress, and it plays such a large role in emotional eating that it is often referred to as "stress eating."
Because of the hormones that stress releases, stress can negatively affect your eating habits. Despite not being particularly hungry or in need of calories, humans naturally gravitate toward "comfort foods" that are higher in fat or sugar content, like fast food and desserts, when they feel upset. For those who are already overweight, the pull toward high-calorie foods and overeating might be even stronger.
Unfortunately, food is not able to make emotional problems go away, and more often than not, stress eating makes you feel worse than before. After consuming a calorie-dense snack, the original emotional issue remains, and on top of that, guilt about overeating begins to set in. These feelings can start a dangerous emotional eating cycle that is difficult to break free from.
The emotional eating cycle begins with the urge to find comfort in food whenever you feel stressed, exhausted, angry, lonely sad or even bored. Although eating your favorite food may feel good in the moment, it does not make the negative emotions go away. Instead, you are left more upset than ever and beating yourself up for not having the willpower to resist overeating.
In addition, routine emotional eating prevents you from learning healthier ways to address your emotions and may lead to troubles controlling your weight. These factors can leave you feeling powerless over both your emotions and food. However, you do not have to stay stuck in this vicious cycle of stress and overeating. You do have the power to make healthy changes by learning to avoid triggering situations, conquer cravings and overcome emotional eating for good.
Is There a Difference Between Emotional vs. Physical Hunger?
To break out of the emotional eating cycle, you must first be able to recognize what emotional eating is. Differentiating emotional hunger from physical hunger is essential if you want to stop stress eating. While this might sound like an easy feat, emotional hunger can be tricky and often disguises itself as real, physical hunger.
Before opening the fridge, assess whether your body is truly hungry by asking yourself these questions:
- What am I craving: Emotional hunger usually includes specific cravings for unhealthy comfort food, whereas physical hunger means just about anything edible sounds good.
- How sudden was this hunger: Emotional hunger can strike in an instant and feels urgent. On the contrary, physical hunger gradually develops as more time passes between meals.
- Am I full: When you emotionally eat, you tend to want more and more food until you're overstuffed. Eating too much is also attributable to mindless eating. Eating to satisfy physical hunger means being aware of what you're consuming and stopping once you're full.
- How am I feeling: If you're emotionally worked up, now is probably not the time to eat. By waiting to eat until you experience physical hunger, you can save yourself from further negative emotions of shame and guilt.
Are You a Stress Eater?
If you're uncertain whether you are a stress eater, look for the following warning signs:
- You eat after an unpleasant experience, such as an argument, even if you do not feel hungry.
- Stress makes you feel hungry.
- You crave specific foods when you feel upset.
- When you're bored and there is nothing else to do, you eat.
- Eating is the main activity that makes you feel better when you're worried or facing a problem.
- You feel the urge to eat whenever you encounter an outside cue, such as a food advertisement.
It is important to be aware that if you regularly eat large quantities of food until you are uncomfortably full and at times even nauseated, you may struggle with binge eating. In this case, you may want to consider speaking with your physician. If stress eating is your main issue, however, you may be able to manage it on your own.
Tips to Help You Stop Stress Eating
If you're prone to eating when you're stressed out, there are a few strategies you can adopt to help you overcome stress eating. Try putting the following healthy habits into practice.
1. Keep a Food Journal
Writing down what you eat, how much and how you were feeling at the time can help you monitor and keep track of your emotional eating. In addition, recording when you eat can help you pinpoint your stressors and recognize triggers. By examining the circumstances around your emotional eating, you can become better equipped to cope with stressful situations in a healthier manner.
2. Savor Your Food
Practice mindful eating by being present in the moment and appreciating each meal to its fullest. Instead of rushing through a meal or mindlessly eating when you're bored, mindful eating allows you to focus on your food and recognize when you're full. Eating slower by taking smaller bites or chewing more slowly can help you savor your food.
3. Try Alternative Activities
Form new coping mechanisms for dealing with negative feelings, such as painting, playing an instrument or talking with a friend. Occupying yourself with a different activity can also distract you from your comfort food cravings and save you from overeating. Finding counter-activities for down moods can help keep you from getting caught in the cycle of emotional eating.
Research directly links regular physical exercise with emotional resilience to stress. In fact, the way the brain responds to long-term exercise can even reduce anxiety by lowering stress levels. Developing an exercise routine can naturally lower your stress levels and reduce the urge to emotionally eat.
You can improve your physical and mental health through a variety of exercise forms, including mindfulness exercises like yoga and meditation. These practices will also help you be more mindful when you eat.
5. Reach Out for Support
If you think you might have extreme or unhealthy responses to stress, consider going to a trusted family member, friend or counselor for help. Having a strong support system is key for dealing with negative emotions and getting through difficult situations. You don't have to face emotional eating alone — speak with a healthcare professional if you think you have a more serious stress eating problem.
Connect With the Gateway Region YMCA Nearest You
To get plugged into a healthy, thriving community, become a member of the Gateway Region YMCA. At the Y, you can develop long-lasting healthy habits like a regular exercise routine to combat stress and emotional eating. The Y also offers a health-focused mobile app for easy nutrition planning. Using this app is a convenient way to track your eating habits and stay up to date on all the latest events at the Y.
Take the next step in your health journey by locating the Gateway Region YMCA closest to you today.