Emotional eating: How do I stop stress eating?

Emotional eating is an eating pattern where individuals use food to help them cope with stressful circumstances.

At one time or another, many individuals experience emotional eating. It could show itself as eating a bag of chips when bored or eating a chocolate bar after a tough day at work.

However when emotional eating sometimes occurs or becomes the primary way a person deals with their feelings, their life, health, happiness, and weight may be adversely affected.

Simple facts about emotional eating:

  • There are both physical and psychological causes for emotional eating.
  • Often, emotional eating is triggered by stress or other strong emotions.
  • Coping strategies can help a person trying to alleviate the most severe symptoms.

Triggers to avoid

emotional eating
Common triggers for emotional eating may include fatigue, habits, boredom, and stress.

Emotions, like stress, are not the only triggers for emotional eating. Other common triggers identified by people include:

  • Boredom: Being bored or having nothing to do is a common emotional eating trigger. Many people live very stimulating and active lives, and when they have nothing to do will turn to food to fill that vacuum.
  • Habits: These are often driven by nostalgia or things that happened in a person’s childhood. An example might be, having ice cream after a good report card or baking cookies with a grandparent.
  • Fatigue: It is easier to overeat or eat mindlessly when fatigued, especially when tired of doing an unpleasant task. Food can seem like the answer to not wanting to do a particular activity anymore.
  • Social influences: Everyone has that friend who encourages them to get a pizza after a night out, go out for dinner or drinks after a difficult day, or as a reward for a good day. It can be easy to overeat when with friends or family.

Coping strategies

To rid themselves of emotional eating, the first step a person needs to take is to identify the causes and circumstances that apply in their life.

It may help to recognise times where someone is more likely to eat because of emotional rather than physical hunger by keeping a food diary or journal.

Another way someone can gain insight into their eating patterns is to monitor their actions.

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.

Talking to a therapist or counselor to find other ways to break the cycle of emotional eating may also be helpful.

It may also be possible for a nutritionist or doctor to provide an expert with a referral or additional knowledge on developing positive eating habits and a healthier relationship with food.

Emotional eating is not merely a matter of a person who lacks or needs to eat less without self-discipline. Similarly, individuals who eat to cope with stress do not only lack self-control.

The triggers are complex and any of the following could be involved:

Childhood development

Emotional eating may be a learned behavior from childhood that could be difficult to break.
Emotional eating may be a learned behavior from childhood that could be difficult to break.

Emotional eating is a learned habit for many individuals. Their parents give them sweets during childhood to help them cope with a stressful day or circumstance, or as a reward for doing positive.

Over time, after getting a bad grade on a test, the kid who reaches for a cookie may become an adult who grabs a box of cookies after a tough day at work.

The origins of emotional eating are deep in an example like this which can make breaking the habit incredibly difficult.

Difficulty dealing with emotions

It is normal for individuals to deal with complicated or uncomfortable emotions and feelings as well. There is an impulse or need to resolve these negative emotions immediately or destroy them, which can lead to unhealthy habits.

And not only is emotional eating related to negative feelings. Because of the holiday occasion itself, eating a lot of candy at a friendly Halloween party, or too much on Thanksgiving are examples of eating.

Physical impact of stress

There are also some physical explanations why a person can overeat because of stress and strong emotions:

  • 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.

Physical vs. emotional hunger

Mistaking emotional hunger for physical hunger is very simple. But there are qualities that separate them.

The first step in trying to avoid emotional eating habits is understanding these subtle differences.

Does the hunger come on quickly or gradually?

Emotional hunger appears to strike rapidly and unexpectedly and feels urgent. Physical hunger, unless it has been a while since an individual eats, is typically not as urgent or unexpected.

Is a food craving for a specific food?

Usually, emotional appetite is associated with fast food cravings or something unhealthy. Someone who is physically hungry will always eat something whereas someone who is emotionally hungry, like fries or a pizza, will want something special.

Is there such a thing as mindless eating?

Mindless eating is when someone eats without paying attention to what they ingest or enjoying it.

An example is eating a whole tub of ice cream while watching TV, having not expected to eat that much. With emotional feeding, this activity typically occurs, not eating by hunger.

Does the hunger come from the stomach or the head?

Emotional hunger, such as with a rumbling or growling stomach, does not come from the stomach. When a person thinks about a craving or wants something specific to eat, emotional hunger tends to start.

Are there feelings of regret or guilt after emotional eating?

It may trigger feelings of remorse, embarrassment, or guilt by giving in to a desire, or eating because of stress. Emotional appetite appears to be correlated with these responses.

Meeting physical hunger, on the other hand, gives the body the nutrients or calories it requires to work and is not correlated with negative feelings.

Takeaway

A common experience is emotional eating and is not generally associated with physical hunger. Some individuals often succumb to it while others may find that it affects their lives and may even risk their health and mental well-being.

Anyone having negative feelings regarding their eating habits should schedule a meeting to discuss their concerns with their doctor. In order to help them find strategies or methods for coping, they may also want to see a licensed nutritionist or another therapist.

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