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Emotional or Stress Eating and What to do About It
Many people are struggling more now than ever with stress eating so it is helpful to identify what it is and how to counter its harmful effects. While some people recognize that they are stress eating, it may be so close to a normal pattern for many that they don’t know their appetite is driven by stress or worse, don’t care enough to change.
The signs of stress eating are fairly evident and include the following:
Eating more as stress increases
Eating when you are not hungry or already feel full
Eating expecting to feel better or sooth yourself
Eating as a reward (moral licensing)
Eating past the point of comfort
Finding undo comfort in foods, particularly the three (fat, salt, sugar)
Feeling helpless to control eating
If you are eating for any of these reasons know that it may feel very much like hunger to you, but it is not. An easy way to check is to physically sense whether you are not hungry when you start down the path of one of the triggers above . By making this check and realizing that no type or amount of food will satisfy emotional or stress eating will help reduce the frequency of this consumption.
Clearly stress eating is a vicious cycle if eating more food and food that you know is bad for you just adds to the stress. Distinguishing between physical hunger and emotional hunger is more difficult if you have not previously identified the distinction and have not been mindful of the difference. I have found Intermittent Fasting to be excellent practice for doing that important check in. While starting the Intermittent Fasting cycle it is common to feel some hunger pangs during the fasting window. One then becomes accustomed to checking to see the degree of hunger and if possibly a glass of water or cup of coffee will help dismiss those pangs.
There are some other indicators that you are emotional eating. Hunger stemming from emotion presents itself suddenly and urgently while physical hunger is more gradual. Emotional hunger is triggers the desire for specific comfort foods that are usually not good for you whereas physical hunger pangs can be satiated with water and Mediterranean Diet foods that are good for you. The foods craved by stress eaters is almost always fat, sugar or salt laden which will release the chemicals that help release the serotonin that regulates anxiety, happiness, and mood. This is of course temporary and the blood sugar spike that accompanies this release has a more profound and longer term effect.
Mindful eating where you carefully have the right amounts of the right foods and drinks each day will often allow your body to recover from serious health problems, including losing weight. The opposite of mindful is mindless, which is passively eating is a sign of stress eating. A participant in our Intermittent Fasting and Mediterranean Diet program has a good solution; she freezes food when possible and thaws what she will use for a meal or a day. This is a good strategy for stress eating, except if it’s ice cream!
Another indicator that you are eating as a response to stress is that your body’s natural mechanism that tells you when to stop eating is turned off. This causes people to continue consuming calories they don’t need typically with poor food choices. The hunger trigger does not turn off because it is not located in the stomach with actual hunger, but rather in from the craving for comfortable tastes, textures, smells and that comforting feeling in your belly.
Compounding overeating with poor food choices is the guilt and knowledge that you are making those poor choices and whatever weight and health goals you may have had are now further from being realized. If the guilt and realization of further increasing your weight and eroding your health can certainly have a multiplier effect. The ill effects also compound over time, just as the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean Diet and Intermittent Fasting compound after they become habits.
Stress eating can also be identified because it has an urgency that needs to be quickly satisfied. Proper nutrition with foods that slowly release sugars will not have a sudden hunger effect, now is the ideal time to check in to make sure you are eating out of hunger, not stress. In fact eating balanced well-proportioned meals without snacking takes the guesswork out of the equation; if you are eating the right foods in the right amounts in the meal window then you are OK. Any craving or triggers beyond that are then by definition stress eating and to be avoided.
While the triggers for stress eating vary, some of the most common causes include trying to contain emotions or “stuffing” instead of dealing effectively with negative emotions. Those emotions are present for many of us, this is written during the pandemic and people are feeling anxiety, loneliness, sadness, anger, resentment shame, or fear. Add to that food insecurity, job loss, and the other dysfunctions that this pandemic generates and there is more reasons to fall back on emotional eating than ever. Boredom, habits from childhood, and friend and family influences can also drive the emotional responses that lead to overeating and other poor choices. On the flipside to remain healthy there are more reasons not to stress eating than ever before.
So what are some ways to break the cycle of stress eating? One way people in my group stay on track is by journaling or tracking food. The Mediterranean Diet is not about counting calories and is the best diet possible. However tracking the food choices, times and portion has helped many people stay on track.
Other ways people are dealing effectively is by helping others, chatting with friends on Zoom or by phone, working on fun or challenging projects, or getting some exercised that doesn’t put you or others at risk. The pandemic is a great time to learn a new skill, pick up a musical instrument, create a video, plant a victory garden, catch up on movies or TV series, or catch up with old friends.
Another strategy is to take 5 when you feel compelled to stress eat. This will give you a chance to check in with yourself and identify the reason your feel the need to eat based on your emotions and the food and amount of food that you eat. Other ways to control binge eating is to remove temptation so you would have to make a lot of extra effort to satisfy those cravings (Behavioral Economics).
Being mindful and working toward positive outcomes can also help. Instead of identifying how bad something is, ask yourself given the situation what you can do to improve it? This positive mindset will help reduce stress and even improve your emotional state so you will be less inclined to relapse into emotional based eating.
Another strategy that I often use is slow and purposeful eating. Slowing down and savoring your meals will help you enjoy your food get a better sense of when you are full. Before this I often ate past the full stage and always regretted it. Now in additional to specific portions I don’t snack, meaning there is no opportunity to overeat.
Drinking lots of water is my first rule for the Mediterranean Diet. Filling up on water will help you feel full when you are not actually hungry, and is good for you and your digestive system. What also helps is staying active, and hopefully working up a sweat. Once the habit is formed and over time your body will crave water and exercise. If done properly you will feel better about yourself and your dependence on large amounts of poor food choices will diminish then disappear.
Understanding the reasons for emotional or stress eating and applying some basic strategies can help reduce then eliminate this harmful eating pattern. Strategies outlined in the article Healthy Diet and Moral Licensing can be used but first everyone needs to be aware of the triggers that prompt the poor eating pattern. Staying mindful, recognizing the difference between physical appetite and emotional neediness, and following a few simple rules will help people turn the corner to weight loss and improved health.