Do you turn to food when you feel stressed out by work, family, or social obligations? You’re not alone! Beverly Hills psychotherapist Allison Cohen, MA, MFT, helps explain why you eat when you’re stressed, how emotional eating affects your weight and health, and what you can do instead.
Stress is a common trigger for emotional eaters because so many everyday life circumstances cause the stress and anxiety that leads to overeating. Some stressors come from within, like the stress you put on yourself to be perfect or the anxiety you feel when you want to ask for a raise or confront a problem you’re having with a friend or family member. Other stressors come from outside of yourself, such as the demands of your job, medical issues, family obligations, and social pressure from friends. Some stressors are within your control and some are not.
“Both negative and positive events can cause stress,” Allison points out. “For instance, buying a home, getting married and having a baby are all joyful events but they are still stressful because they involve change, and change always brings new and often anxiety-provoking issues into your life.” And that’s why both positive and negative circumstances can also lead to emotional overeating, she adds.
And which foods do most people turn to when they stress-eat? You probably have enough personal experience to know that comfort foods—those that mentally bring us back to a more carefree time of childhood, and that are often high in sugar, fat, or both—are what emotional overeaters usually crave when tensions rise. Which may help explain why psychological stress and “reward eating,” characterized by a lack of control over the types and amount of food eaten, are two top factors that prevent so many people from losing weight.1
- How do I stop stress eating?
- Stressed? Three Healthy Ways to Combat Stress Eating
- 7 Ways to Stop Overeating Once and For All
- Look Ahead
- Eat Slower
- Eat Mindfully
- Get Your Stress Under Control
- Eat Before You’re Hungry
- Give Yourself Time
- Pay Attention to All Your Hunger Cues
- Stop Overeating
- Here’s Why You Stress Eat — And How to Stop Doing It
- Why you stress eat
- How to tell if you’re stress eating
- Thank you!
- How to stop stress eating
- Why stress causes people to overeat
- Stress eating can ruin your weight loss goals – the key is to find ways to relieve stress without overeating
Does Stress Causes Hunger?
You have both physical and psychological relationships with food. Your physical relationship with food is based on the types of foods you choose to eat, your eating behavior, or habits and how your body responds biologically to your diet. Your psychological, or emotional, relationship with food is based on how you think about food, how you use food for reasons other than to relieve hunger, and how food relates your body image, or the way you feel about how you look.
Sometimes you eat to satisfy true hunger, to fulfill a physical need to eat and survive. At other times, such as when you stress-eat, you eat to satisfy your appetite, or your desire for a particular type of food, because you believe it will provide relief. That’s a psychological, or emotional, need that generally has nothing to do with actual hunger. Emotional hunger is a driving response to overwhelming feelings and emotions.
“Of course, if you’re hungry and stressed at the same time, you may well be eating to satisfy true hunger,” adds Allison. “But, at the same time, you may choose fast food or a sweet dessert over something more nutritious because, at that moment, you’re not trying to eat healthfully.”
The biological reason you overeat when stressed may be that persistent stress causes increased and ongoing secretion of a hormone called cortisol into the bloodstream, and high blood levels of cortisol are linked to increased appetite. Stress-related levels of cortisol have been found to be significantly higher in obese women than in women at a healthier weight, although that link doesn’t always result in overeating.2
5 Ways to Handle Stress Eating
In order to get control of stress eating, you have to control your stress levels. The best way to deal with stress is to address current situations head-on and, at the same time, learn to be prepared to handle stressful situations in the future before both the problem and your eating behavior get out of hand. These 5 steps can help you manage stress and avoid stress eating:
- Know your stressors. Identify the circumstances and emotions that lead you to stress-eat. These are your emotional eating triggers, and once you recognize them, you can take steps to avoid them or at least be prepared for them.
- Exercise to reduce stress. If you’re physically fit, you’re more resistant to the effects of stress.3 Exercise causes chemical changes in the brain that reduce stress but, unfortunately, stress itself can prevent some people from taking steps, like exercising, that could make a difference in their mental and physical health.4 If your personal circumstances make it difficult for you to get to the gym or even do formal exercises at home, try to increase the amount of walking, gardening, cleaning and other lighter forms of movement and exercise you normally do from day to day.
- Reach out for help. Talk out your feelings and your unhealthy responses to stress with close friends and family who can give you the support you need to get through tough situations. If you often feel guilt, shame or regret over your eating habits, you may want to speak with a professional counselor.
- Develop a practice of mindfulness. Meditation, yoga, tai chi and other mindfulness-based exercises and programs help calm the mind and the body. When you are mindful, calm, and focused, you are better able to make smarter and healthier lifestyle choices.1 Mindful eating—slowing down and paying more attention to what and how you eat—is a form of mindfulness.
- Learn intuitive eating, a practice developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch back in the 1990s that complements mindful eating, and that is still recommended by nutrition experts today.5 Intuitive eating means paying more attention to the natural, internal hunger and fullness signals sent between your brain and your gut. These signals help you determine when, what, and how much to eat. It’s also about trusting those signals. Once you understand and trust your own natural eating cues, unless you have dietary restrictions, you can give yourself permission to give in to a craving for, say, chocolate cake just as easily as you give yourself permission to eat vegetables, without guilt or shame. You’ll know intuitively when to say “enough!” Your decision is based on hunger as well as the appeal of certain foods at certain times, but not on how stressed or emotional you feel in the moment.
“Eating intuitively empowers you to learn what your body feels like when you are truly hungry versus hunger that is instead powered by stress or the need for emotional comfort,” Allison explains. “When you understand and pay attention to the ‘why’s’ of what your body is craving, you’ll have a better understanding of how to manage stress-eating.”
Article Sources Last Updated: May 28, 2019
Stress comes in many forms. There is acute stress: You witness a car accident, a loved one dies, you lose your job, etc. And then there is chronic stress: You hate your job, you are overwhelmed parenting three children, you worry about not having enough money to pay the bills. When we encounter ongoing, or chronic, stress we feel we don’t have any control over (“How am I suddenly supposed to be less stressed with three kids?”), we are more likely to eat as a response to that stress.
When we encounter stress that we perceive as chronic and out of our control, we are more likely to reach for food for comfort. But why? And why only certain types of food? When we eat highly rewarding food (food that is high in sugar and/or fat and usually highly processed), it dampens the activity of our TRS, and we feel better. A message then gets sent to our brain that we learned how to “deal” with the stress, and the next time we are faced with this stress, our brain will get the signal that we know how to deal with it, and we will be subconsciously encouraged to eat highly rewarding food again.
In addition, this response is only activated when presented with highly rewarding foods, or as a more common description, junk food. Junk food is usually high in calories, food processing, and/or fat and sugar. Our brain has been conditioned to believe that junk food will make us feel better, so it actively seeks out this food in order to effectively help us manage the stressful situation.
The survival part of your brain doesn’t take into account your personal goals of living a healthy lifestyle when faced with the responsibility of protecting you against stress, so it drives you to overeat junk food because it is trained to protect you. This becomes a vicious cycle that looks something like this: You receive a stressful email from your boss, and you perceive this stress as a situation out of your control; your brain then activates a series of messages urging you to eat junk food; you eat the junk food and initially feel better about the email. However, later you start to feel frustrated and upset with yourself for overeating the junk food because you had promised yourself you weren’t going to do that anymore. This sets off a cascade of emotions about your willpower and ability to manage your health, which lead to you feeling out of control where your health and weight are concerned—leading to stress about this…you can see where this is going.
Do you turn to food whenever you’re stressed out? Stress-related food behaviors can be changed. Here are 10 tips to help you find better ways to deal with stress:
- Fit in fitness every day. Getting regular physical activity works wonders in coping with stress. Give your stress to the pavement or the treadmill and let it go from your body. Staying active in winter elevates your mood and reduces stress.
- Enjoy natural sunlight, especially in the winter. It can be depressing to be stuck indoors during the shortened days of winter, but a brisk walk in the sunshine can be a real mood enhancer.
- Keep up your journal every day. Self-monitoring your food, fitness, and emotional feelings is an excellent way to become more aware of your triggers and behavioral patterns.
- Don’t deprive yourself of enjoying the foods you love, for this only leads to bingeing. Instead, plan to eat a small portion of the desired foods, eat it slowly, and savor every mouthful.
- Set some ground rules about eating (such as only eat while seated, no food after 9 p.m., no second helpings, etc.).
- Visit our community boards regularly and let your friends and professional staff help you. Research has shown that staying connected is one of the most important aspects of dealing with stress and sticking to your eating plan.
- Identify the situations that cause overeating and develop a list of how you will handle these challenges. Be realistic. Talk it over with your buddies that face similar stressors to find realistic solutions that will help you manage the stress.
- Relax. Give yourself 15 minutes each day of peace and quiet, a time to be reflective, meditate, or simply unwind. Soaking in a hot bubble bath can help release your troubles into thin air. Breaking free from the family, a breath of fresh air, or escaping to a quiet room will energize and empower you.
- Be good to yourself. Have a list of motivational sayings that inspire and strengthen your resolve. Use affirmations daily to help you feel good about yourself and your mission to lose weight.
- Eat healthfully. Proper nutrition promotes health, well-being, and rejuvenation, which in turn enhances your resilience to stress.
How do I stop stress eating?
The first step a person needs to take to rid themselves of emotional eating is to recognize the triggers and situations that apply in their life.
Keeping a food diary or journal can help to identify situations when someone is more likely to eat because of emotional instead of physical hunger.
Tracking their behavior is another way someone can gain insight into their eating habits.
The behavior they record can include:
- patterns of hunger levels, maybe on a 1–10 scale
- what they are doing and if it is tedious and unpleasant
- what they are feeling, whether bored or angry,
Next, they may want to brainstorm ideas for ways to counteract the triggers they identify. For example:
- Someone who eats when bored may want to find a new book that sounds exciting to start reading, or start a new hobby that could provide a challenge.
- Someone who eats because of stress could try yoga, meditating, or taking a walk to help themselves cope with their emotions.
- Someone who eats when they are depressed may want to call a friend, take the dog for a run, or plan an outing to cope with their negative feelings.
It can also be helpful to talk to a therapist or psychologist to discuss other ways to break the cycle of emotional eating.
A nutritionist or doctor may also be able to provide a referral to an expert or additional information on creating positive eating habits and a better relationship with food.
Emotional eating is not simply a matter of a person lacking self-discipline or needing to eat less. Likewise, people who eat to deal with stress do not just lack self-control.
The causes are complex and may involve some of the following:
Share on PinterestEmotional eating may be a learned behavior from childhood that could be difficult to break.
For some people, emotional eating is a learned behavior. During childhood, their parents give them treats to help them deal with a tough day or situation, or as a reward for something good.
Over time, the child who reaches for a cookie after getting a bad grade on a test may become an adult who grabs a box of cookies after a rough day at work.
In an example such as this, the roots of emotional eating are deep, which can make breaking the habit extremely challenging.
Difficulty dealing with emotions
It is common for people to also struggle with difficult or uncomfortable feelings and emotions. There is an instinct or need to quickly fix or destroy these negative feelings, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors.
And emotional eating is not only linked to negative emotions. Eating a lot of candy at a fun Halloween party, or too much on Thanksgiving are examples of eating because of the holiday occasion itself.
Physical impact of stress
There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:
- High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If the stress does not let up, another hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.
- Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.
Stressed? Three Healthy Ways to Combat Stress Eating
By Garth Davis, MD
Stress has become our constant companion in our fast-paced lifestyles. A little stress has its benefits, without it we might get nothing done, but few of us have just a little stress. The side effects of chronic stress are many and unfortunately include an expanding waistline. There are healthy ways and unhealthy ways to deal with stress, and one very unhealthy way is stress eating.
We have all been there. After a long stressful day, who is craving a salad? Most people go straight for the high-sugar and high-fat easy meals – there are several scientific explanations for this all-too-human reaction. First of all, under stress we secrete a hormone called cortisol. We may have evolved this cortisol release to prepare us for a fight-or-flight response because cortisol causes our cells to mobilize sugar for our immediate response. The problem is that under chronic stress, the higher sugar from the cortisol will be met with an insulin surge that then drops the blood sugar. The spike and then drop is a strong cue to eat, and to specifically replenish the sugar. Additionally, since stress in ancient times often came in the form of food scarcity, science has found that stress actually drives us to eat calorie-dense foods, which may have been good in ancient times but is awful when surrounded by fast food restaurants offering an assortment of high-calorie foods 24/7.
Of course, there is also science to explain the soothing effect of food.
Food stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain that bring pleasure – the best antidote for the pain of stress. In fact, not all people respond to stress with unhealthy eating and science has an explanation. Special MRIs of the brains of people with a normal bodyweight show a healthy supply of dopamine receptors, which bring pleasure when stimulated. When you look at people who suffer with obesity, their brains have a paucity of dopamine receptors, and when shown a greasy hamburger, they have more of a response in the parts of the brain that drive hunger than do normal weight comparisons. So, these people have a harder time getting the satisfaction from their food and are therefore more driven to eat under stressful situations.
I think it is important to understand that this is not all a will-power issue, and you are not a failure for stress eating. This is a physiologic response driven by hormones that’s hard wired into our DNA. That being said, there are very helpful tips that can certainly work to combat stress eating.
First off, stress management is key. You have heard this before but exercise, meditation and good sleeping habits are absolutely essential to controlling cortisol and are essential parts of stress management.
When it comes to stress eating, it is important to note that the drive to eat is almost subconscious. In a lab study where they put people under stress and then had food sitting around, people were more likely to subconsciously go for the junk food. The key is to be very conscious about your food decisions, at least in the beginning. I always recommend my patients keep food journals – journaling alone has been associated with weight loss and it is a great stress reliever. But it also allows you to be very cognizant about what is driving you to eat and what situations make you turn to unhealthy foods.
Secondly, never make game-time decisions. Once you know your cues, make a plan. I can tell you that if you don’t know what you are eating for lunch and someone orders pizza, you will definitely be having pizza for lunch. If, however, the night before you plan your meal for the day and you know you had planned a salad and even brought one with you, you are much less likely to eat the pizza.
Finally, prepare for the inevitable stress. Judith Beck, a leader in cognitive behavioral therapy and author of Beck’s Diet Solution, suggests that people make index cards with “If, then” scenarios. For example: the card may read, “I get stressed when my kids don’t do their chores. If my kids don’t do their chores, then I will go for a walk.” In other words – you realize what drives you to eat unhealthy foods and instead of eating the unhealthy foods, you have a plan to alleviate the stress. Over time, you will gain better control of your drives.
These suggestions are part of a very effective, and well-studied, psychological technique called cognitive behavioral therapy. There are many books on the topic that can help you, including Dr. Beck’s. Alternatively, at Mission Weight Management our team of physicians, dietitians and behavioral therapists can give you the tools to reign in the stress eating.
Garth Davis, MD, FASMBS, is the Medical Director of Mission Weight Management.
To learn more about Dr. Davis and Mission Weight Management, or to sign up for a free information session, call 828-213-4100 or visit garthdavismd.org.
7 Ways to Stop Overeating Once and For All
Overeating is easy to do, especially when you’re indulging in an unusually delicious meal. It’s also easy because there are many factors that cause us to overeat, including stress and noshing too fast—both of which we likely experience or do on an almost daily basis.
Fortunately, there are many tactics you can use to stop overeating once and for all, from slowing down to learning your body’s hunger cues. Use these tips to get your eating on track so you can feel fueled and satiated instead of full and frustrated.
If you’re surrounded by unhealthy food all the time, it can be easy to eat all day long, whether or not you are hungry. Here’s one way to avoid this temptation: Think about how you’ll feel after you eat too much—like those times when you know you’re full, but there’s still food on your plate.
A similarly powerful tactic is thinking about how you’ll feel if you don’t eat the food. In almost every case you feel proud, happy and more satisfied than if you’d indulged unnecessarily.
Stop Once and For All: Before you grab the doughnut from your office kitchen—especially if you’ve already had a full breakfast—think to yourself: How will I feel when I finish this? Better yet: How will I feel if I walk away right now? Make this a habit, doing it every time you reach for an unnecessary snack; sometimes you’ll want to indulge and that’s okay. But you may find that you say “no” a lot more often than you say “yes.”
It takes time for your stomach to tell your mind that you’re full because the process of feeling satiated takes time.
“Stretch receptors in the stomach are activated as it fills with food or water; these signal the brain directly through the vagus nerve that connects gut and brainstem. Hormonal signals are released as partially digested food enters the small intestine,” explains Ann MacDonald, a contributor to Harvard Health.
This process of sending signals from your gut to your brain can take anywhere from five to 20 minutes, which is why it’s important to eat more slowly. Eating too fast is a surefire way to overeat because we get this cue well after we’ve already eaten too much.
Stop Once and For All: The next time you eat, set a timer for 20 minutes and see how long it takes you to feel full, paying close attention to the cues your body is sending you. This will give you an approximation of how long it takes your body to feel full, which you can use to stop overeating in the future. Continue eating slowly until you notice that “I’m full” feeling. Note that those with type 2 diabetes may not get these same hunger cues, which makes this tactic less effective.
In our on-the-go world, we’re often eating breakfast in the car, rushing through lunch at our desk, and half-heartedly noshing on dinner while watching our favorites shows. In all of these situations, your focus isn’t on the food you’re eating. It’s on driving, working or watching television, which can lead to overeating.
When you’re not paying attention to your body, it’s easy to miss the “I’m hungry” cue—just like when you eat too fast.
Stop Once and For All: Make a rule to eat at least one meal a day without doing anything else. Notice the difference in recognizing your satiation (feeling full) cues and how satisfied you are. Slowly increase this to two meals each day and eventually to all three.
Get Your Stress Under Control
It seems as though there’s always something stress us out, whether it’s a meeting at work or a family issue. This stress not only wreaks havoc on your body physically, causing everything from chronic high blood pressure and diarrhea, to headaches, chest pain and more, it’s causing you to overeat.
When stressed, your body releases cortisol, which also happens to increase appetite. Whether you’re hungry or not, your body is craving food, and to quell that “hunger” you eat. In many cases, you end up eating high-fat, sugary foods, making the overeating even worse.
Stop Once and For All: If you can’t reduce the amount of stress in your life right now, the next step is to recognize the potential for overeating and stop it before it starts. When stressed, rely on portioning your food, and when you go out to eat, get half of your meal put in a box for later before you even start eating. If you’re hungry for a snack, when you normally aren’t, check in with yourself: Is this stress or am I really hungry? Take Michael Pollan’s advice: If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not hungry.
Eat Before You’re Hungry
This idea may sound odd, but think about these two scenarios:
- You eat dinner a little early, not because you’re very hungry but because you know you’re going out with friends and don’t want to order out—or you wait until you’re starving and eat post-drinks. You pour a glass of wine, browse the fridge, take your time making dinner, eat until you’re relatively full and then head out.
- You decide not to eat before going out because you’re not hungry. You wait to eat dinner until 8pm, after you’ve gone out for drinks. Now you’re ravenous. You dive into your cabinets looking for whatever is easiest to make, and dig into the first thing you see. You eat so fast, you don’t realize how full you are—and now you’re stuffed and wishing you hadn’t eaten so much.
In the second scenario, you’re so hungry that you may be experiencing slight nausea or a headache from the hunger. But you may even eat unhealthier foods because you’ll likely eat one of the first things you find; forget about taking time to make a healthy dinner.
You may have similar experiences if you wait too long to have lunch at work, or eat breakfast late in the morning.
Stop Once and For All: Most people tend to eat around the same time every day. Set an alarm on your phone for an hour before you’d normally eat each meal so you remember to nosh earlier than usual. You’ll quickly find that you’re more likely to make rational healthy choices about what you’re eating and how much.
Give Yourself Time
How many times have you looked down at your plate, knowing that you’re full, and finished it anyway? When you’re done, you feel full and mad at yourself: Why did I eat the rest of that? I didn’t need it and now I feel like crap. It’s hard to resist food in the moment, thanks to our need for instant gratification. But giving yourself time to decide whether or not to finish the plate may be exactly what you need.
Stop Once and For All: The next time you’re in a moment where you would normally eat more, but know you shouldn’t, stop for 10 minutes. Give yourself time to decide if you want to eat the rest of the food on your plate. Almost every time, you’ll be happy to toss or save the rest of the food when your 10 minutes is up.
Pay Attention to All Your Hunger Cues
If you’re waiting for your stomach to growl, you may be setting yourself up to overeat, because we don’t all experience the same hunger cues. Sometimes it shows up as a headache or a bad mood that comes on suddenly. A nutritionist once said, “I always know I’m hungry when I’m happily working on something and all of a sudden I’m annoyed by what I’m doing.”
Knowing how hunger can show up in your body is key to recognizing it before it’s too late and you’re starving. Other potential hunger signals include:
- Growling stomach
- Low energy
- Suddenly irritable (“hangry”)
Stop Once and For All: Make note of which hunger cues you experience each time you eat. Slowly you’ll discover what means “I’m hungry” for your body, allowing you to eat right away rather than waiting until later, when you’re ravenous, and therefore more likely to overeat.
It can be so hard to say no when food is right in front of you—and so easy to ignore that full feeling and eat until you’re so full you literally need to lay down because it hurts to sit or stand. Stop the cycle of overeating once and for all with these simple tips. Test each one to see which works best for you and then stick with it. Once it becomes a habit, you’re more likely to say no when you’re full and indulge when your body needs the fuel.
Sometimes it happens after you get an angry email from your boss. Or, maybe because you recently connected with a new love interest…and now he or she’s gone MIA. Whatever the dilemma, cue your hand in the bag of Cheetos or a visit to the kitchen for, well…whatever’s there.
You know what it is: stress eating. “It’s perfectly human to want to avoid pain and seek relief,” says Minh-Hai Alex, a registered dietitian and founder of Mindful Nutrition in Seattle. “Stress eating usually happens when we want to disconnect from the moment. It’s like changing the channel in our brain to try to change how we feel,” she explains. Here’s why food is such a salve for stress — and how to stop the cycle.
This Is Why You Turn to Food When You’re Stressed
It’s no surprise if you suddenly feel famished when deadlines or crises strike. “Stress activates your adrenal glands to release cortisol, increasing your appetite,” says Melissa McCreery, PhD, ACC, psychologist and the emotional eating expert behind the site Too Much On Her Plate. Stress also impedes hunger hormones, like ghrelin, that regulate your appetite, research shows. If the anxiety is cutting into your sleep, a lack of zzz’s ramps up your appetite even more.
“Stress depletes the cognitive resources you need to remain focused and resilient.”
RELATED: The Hidden Ways Sleep Deprivation Can Lead to Weight Gain
Unfortunately, that anxiety-induced hunger can have long-term consequences for your waistline. In fact, one new study found that women who reported they were stressed burned fewer calories and fat, and had a higher insulin response after eating a higher fat meal. Published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the researchers concluded that these stress-induced changes led women to burn about 100 fewer calories per day — a difference that could cause you to pack on 11 pounds in a year.
When you’re under stress, you often feel out of control and overwhelmed — and that can leak into your eating habits, McCreery says. So it’s no surprise that you go after junk food like a hungry lion, rather than keeping up your normally healthy habits. “You’re worried about the past or the future — not what you’re eating in the present,” she adds.
RELATED: Are You Exceeding Your Daily Sugar Intake in Just One Meal?
Stress depletes the cognitive resources you need to remain focused and resilient, and to practice creative problem solving, says McCreery. That’s why getting elbow-deep in a pint of mint chip always feels easier than actually coming up with a plan for how to tackle that super tough work project.
When Junk Food Is Calling Your Name
While it’s too bad you don’t crave celery sticks and carrots during crazed moments, that would go against biology. Fries, snack mixes, cookies and ice cream are go-tos because these high-carb, high-fat eats increase the brain’s feel-good dopamine response, Alex explains. Then, next time you get into a bind, you’ll hear the siren song of chocolate chips because your noggin has come to expect the rewarding hit of dopamine — and knows where to find it. (Ahem, cookies.)
RELATED: The Breakfast That Could Help You Eat 50 Percent Less at Lunch
Not only that, but it’s easy for stress snacking to become an ingrained habit. A 2015 study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism discovered that one reason we eat high sugar foods is because sugar dampens stress-induced cortisol responses. Translation: You feel better on a sugar high. Over time, your brain may start to rely on these foods to simmer down.
Problem is, anyone who’s done it (and who hasn’t?) knows what it feels like after you eat for emotional reasons — the guilt and frustration hit you like a hangover. Research from Penn State backs up what we’ve all suspected — that eating bad-for-you foods can make a grumpy mood even worse.
How to Stop Stress Eating
Ready to break free from stress eating and bring back happiness to your eats? Try some of these simple tricks next time anxiety strikes.
1. Focus on the real issue.
We all know food is just a crutch when we’re stressed. “Stress eating is not the primary problem, but a symptom of unmet needs,” says Alex. Ask yourself ‘How do I feel?’ or ‘What do I need?’ to figure out what’s really getting under your skin.
RELATED: How to Get Good at Stress (And Make It Work in Your Favor)
2. Think long-term.
Take a minute to focus on the future (whether that means recalling your weight loss goals, or how awesome you want to look on vacation next month) before you give in to stress eating. It can help get you out of the moment so you make healthier food choices instead of succumbing to the lure of a tasty treat, suggests a 2014 study.
3. Get mindful.
In a study in the Journal of Obesity, women who underwent mindfulness training — learning stress reduction techniques, how to recognize hunger, and pay attention to taste — were less apt to stress eat and lost more belly fat compared to a control group. Next time you’re feeling taxed, try this exercise. You’ll learn to identify your feelings, accept the unpleasant ones and focus on your breathing so you can fight the automatic urge to reach for a snack.
RELATED: 9 Simple Tricks to Eat More Mindfully — Starting Now
4. Be kind to yourself.
“Self-compassion can decrease stress eating,” says Alex. “When you’re a kind, understanding friend to yourself, it’s easier to resist the urge to try to disconnect through stress eating,” she adds. If you do stress eat, promise that you won’t beat yourself up and understand that it happens to everyone sometimes. That can help stop you from eating out of failure and help you make better choices later.
5. If all else fails…
Go ahead and indulge. “Food is a lovely, comforting thing,” says McCreery. So if you’re going to do it anyway, she recommends really enjoying it. “Sit down, let yourself relax, and taste the ice cream.” Of course, do so in moderation. Plan on savoring a small brownie rather than the whole batch.
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Here’s Why You Stress Eat — And How to Stop Doing It
It should come as no surprise that Americans are stressed. A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that money, work, crime, violence, the political climate and the future of the nation are all significant stressors for Americans, each plaguing more than half of the survey respondents.
While stress is bad for the body, the ways people deal with it can be just as unhealthy. The APA found in a different survey that almost 40% of adults reported overeating or consuming junk food in response to stress during the prior month. And of those people, about half said they did so weekly.
What is it about food — particularly junk food — that calls to so many of us during stressful times? Here’s what the experts say about stress eating.
Why you stress eat
People look for comfort in food for both physiological and psychological reasons.
The hormone cortisol rises with chronic stress and can lead to increased appetite, says registered dietitian Allison Knott. “It can be true hunger if you have extended stress that is promoting this cortisol production to the point of impacting your appetite,” she says.
But just as often, food is used as a “numbing strategy,” says Amanda Baten, a nutritional psychologist. “It’s a distraction strategy in the same way that people might use alcohol or drugs or sex or TV as ways to create a buffer between themselves and whatever difficult feelings they might be experiencing.”
Eating can even spark some of the same neurological reactions that drugs do, albeit to a lesser extent. Brain imaging research has shown that when people binge on carbohydrates and sugars, “it can actually activate the pleasure centers of the brain,” Baten says. Research has shown that sugar, like heroin or cocaine, can cause the feel-good chemical dopamine to flood the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain responsible for pleasure and reward. Sugar can also release endogenous opioids, the body’s natural painkillers, which creates a pleasant effect.
But just like drugs and alcohol, emotional eating is a bandage for stress, rather than a cure. A healthier response, Baten says, is recognizing that stress and negative emotions happen, and that we have to find sustainable ways to cope with them.
“We are raised in a culture that tells us we should not have negative feelings — we shouldn’t be sad, we shouldn’t be angry,” Baten says. “There’s a distinction to be made between what’s an appropriate and healthy negative emotion that actually guides us to problem-solve by tolerating that feeling, versus what becomes the unhealthy negative emotional reaction or feeling.”
How to tell if you’re stress eating
While some people purposely and consciously dive into a pint of ice cream after a trying day, others may stress eat without even knowing it, Knott says. “People get on autopilot,” she says. “It becomes part of our lives, and we don’t necessarily recognize what is happening.”
To avoid mindless eating, it’s important to understand the difference between emotional and physical hunger. Before you tear open a bag of chips, take stock of how you’re feeling physically and mentally, Knott says. Hunger feels different for everybody, but it’s often accompanied by physical symptoms like a growling or empty stomach, low energy and headache. If you’re craving snacks without any of these physical signs, you may simply be looking for comfort or a distraction, Knott says.
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“If you aren’t truly hungry and it is a comfort food type of response, or a way to manage the stress that is related to using food to soothe, then you might want to take a different approach,” Knott says.
How to stop stress eating
When you’re in the throes of a stressful situation, just about any healthy distraction — like going for a walk, getting fresh air, doing a quick guided meditation or calling a friend — can help you avoid the draw of junk food, Baten says. Drinking water may also help, since people often confuse hunger and thirst.
But in the long-term, getting at the root cause of your stress is more important than stopping yourself from snacking in the moment. Healthy habits like exercise, sleep and proper nutrition are all sustainable stress relievers, Baten says. And if you consistently struggle with emotional or stress eating, Baten says, it may be worth speaking with a professional, who can help you sort out underlying issues.
“It’s important to pay attention to our feelings before they become so intensified that we can’t think clearly,” Baten says. “Emotional eating is happening because there’s an emotional need that isn’t being fulfilled.”
But it’s also important to acknowledge that your emotions will win out from time to time — and beating yourself up for occasionally choosing comfort food will only add to your stress.
“We, unfortunately, put a lot of emphasis on our individual food choices, and there can be guilt connected to some of those more indulgent choices, which can ultimately lead to more stress,” Knott says. “It really is about your pattern of eating and having a healthful diet in a sustainable, long period of time. That can include these indulgences in this overarching diet pattern.”
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Write to Jamie Ducharme at [email protected]
Why stress causes people to overeat
Stress eating can ruin your weight loss goals – the key is to find ways to relieve stress without overeating
Updated: July 18, 2018Published: February, 2012
There is much truth behind the phrase “stress eating.” Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating. Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists, it’s a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away — or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position — cortisol may stay elevated.
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 do people stress eat?
Some research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking. And a Finnish study that included over 5,000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men.
Harvard researchers have reported that stress from work and other sorts of problems correlates with weight gain, but only in those who were overweight at the beginning of the study period. One theory is that overweight people have elevated insulin levels, and stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in the presence of high insulin.
How much cortisol people produce in response to stress may also factor into the stress–weight gain equation. In 2007, British researchers designed an ingenious study that showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels in an experimental setting were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low-cortisol responders.
How to relieve stress without overeating
When stress affects someone’s appetite and waistline, the individual can forestall further weight gain by ridding the refrigerator and cupboards of high-fat, sugary foods. Keeping those “comfort foods” handy is just inviting trouble.
Here are some other suggestions for countering stress:
Meditation. Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress, although much of the research has focused on high blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to pay better attention to the impulse to grab a fat- and sugar-loaded comfort food and inhibit the impulse.
Exercise. While cortisol levels vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, overall exercise can blunt some of the negative effects of stress. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation.
Social support. Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience. For example, research suggests that people working in stressful situations, like hospital emergency departments, have better mental health if they have adequate social support. But even people who live and work in situations where the stakes aren’t as high need help from time to time from friends and family.
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