How to Understand and Overcome Stress Eating

What is Stress eating

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As a non-diet dietitian, I have many clients frequently come to me with the concern that when they’re under states of anxiety and stress, they tend to stress eat. They feel out of control, guilty, and this in turn causes them to feel even more stress. It’s like a never-ending cycle. In this post, I explain why stress eating occurs, and I give you several tips on how to manage stress eating, if that is your situation.

Understanding emotional eating
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What causes stress eating?

Stress eating is the response some of us can engage in as a result of emotional stress. The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine defines emotional stress in the following way:

“Emotional stress involves the experience of negative affect, such as anxiety, in the context of a physiological stress response that includes cardiovascular and hormonal changes. Emotional stress commonly occurs when an individual perceives that he or she does not have adequate personal resources to meet situational demands effectively”.

Emotionally stress can arise from:

  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Loss of loved ones 
  • Unemployment or economic difficulties
  • Illness
  • Uncertainty
  • ….and many other situations unique and valid for you

I think we can all agree that feeling emotional stress really sucks. In fact, risking a bit of TMI here, I personally tend to lose my appetite completely when I’m stressed, which is just the other side of the coin. It’s definitely not fun. And as commonly known, there’s a strong connection between emotional states and eating habits.

So, how does stress affect eating habits?

Emotions can affect our eating habits
Emotions can definitely affect our eating habits

Here’s an overview of why stress eating happens. Emotional stress can affect eating habits due to:

  • Poor interoceptive awareness: This means lack of awareness of the internal bodily signals we are continuously receiving, accessing and evaluating. The inability to identify or verbally describe our feelings is also involved. 
  • Confusion of hunger and satiety signals: Not knowing how to determine when we feel hungry or full.
  • Body sensations associated with emotions: The body-mind connection is so strong, that our emotions can produce physical symptoms.
  • Poor emotional regulation strategies: Using coping behaviors such as emotional suppression, avoidance of stress by distraction, or emotional eating.
  • A reversed stress response of the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis: Um, what?!? This just basically means that instead of elevated cortisol levels in response to stress (which is how this usually goes), this response is weakened.  

And these are just some of the factors involved. As we can see, stress eating (or emotional eating) is a very complex emotional response. Therefore, it involves many different strategies for learning how to understand and work through it, as we’ll see later on.

Stress can disrupt the natural “balance” of an organism (such as your or me). In turn, our bodies respond to this stress in ways to try to regain that balance. Eating behaviors are one of the factors that can become “unbalanced” under stress. And we all react differently.

In fact, this article states that “In humans, individual differences in food intake response are similarly noted – roughly 40% increase and 40% decrease their caloric intake when stressed, while approximately 20% of people do not change feeding behaviors during stressful periods”. So there’s no need to feel guilty or more stressed out about stress eating-as we’ve just seen, it’s a very common response to difficult situations. 

Feelings of depression can also lead to emotional eating. Lower levels of serotonin activity (the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, intestinal activity and appetite, memory, and sleep) are associated with increased appetite 

Comfort eating for stress relief

The above article also points out that “humans…turn to hyperpalatable [tasty] comfort foods such as fast food, snacks, and calorie-dense foods”. It appears that stress not only may promote irregular eating patterns, but it also strengthens networks that make us crave tasty “comfort” food. So it’s no wonder we reach for the ice cream when we’re upset!

Human and animal theories and models of emotional or stress-induced eating show some similarities, such as:

  • Genetic predispositions (for example, impulsivity and reward sensitivity associated with dysregulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine)
  • Vulnerability to depression
  • Poor emotional regulation 
  • A need to escape negative emotions

During difficult emotions, comfort eaters tend to prefer sweet, high fat, high-calorie foods. It seems that these foods may help protect against stress. The evidence points to the possibility that these foods can suppress the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) response (remember from above?). Similarly, the activation of the HPA may also increase appetite for these tasty foods. 

Interestingly, it is also thought that comfort eating may help reduce stress responses, such as the cortisol response. In human research, there is preliminary evidence to support this model, but we don’t have long term results to confirm this. 

And even though the benefits to mood improvement may be temporary, it’s still sufficient enough to encourage “repeated attempts to prolong mood improvement or distract from negative rumination”. So, although eating for comfort may help us feel better for a short time, it’s not a lasting solution. And although there’s nothing wrong with eating as a way to self-soothe, we eventually want to know what the real issue is and how to best address it. Let’s see some examples.

What can you do instead of stress eating?

As you may have already noticed, a multi-step approach is one of the best ways to address stress eating, if it’s an issue for you. Since there’s both a psychological and nutritional aspect to this emotional response, I’ll give you some actionable steps you can take with respect to these particular factors.

Managing emotions and stress

As we’ve seen, understanding our emotions is key to learning how to cope with stress eating behaviors. For some expert strategies on stress and anxiety regulation, I spoke with Dr. Jesús Berrios Ortiz, Psychologist, who recommends the following actions:

  • Identify your emotions. It’s normal that given any negative situations we are experiencing we may feel fear, loneliness, frustration, anguish and lack of control. Accepting what you feel is the first step.
  • Perform physical activity and practice relaxation. Physical activity is essential. This helps us maintain a mind-body balance. In addition, the secretion of endorphins, which are feel-good neurotransmitters, helps minimize anxiety symptoms.
  • Work towards developing a positive vision of the future. When going through stressful times, it’s important to be aware of our present. However, for anxiety management you can think of future dates in which you project yourself in a positive way. For example, what will you do on your next vacation or where will you spend Christmas, etc.
  • When dealing with external uncertainty, disconnect from the news and social networks. It is important that we have some relaxation time and activities that generate pleasure for us. You should stay informed, but only from official and reliable sources, instead of unfounded conspiracy theories on social media.
  • Try to schedule healthy habits into your day. Good hygiene and self-care, adequate rest, and recreation are some of the things we can schedule into our routines to give us a bit more stability. That way, we won’t find ourselves bored or overwhelmed, and we’ll be less prone to mindless behaviors.
  •  Make a list of the important people in your life you can readily contact. This practice will help you understand who in your life you can depend on when difficult feelings arise and who can help you work through them, rather than trying to dismiss these feelings.

Nutritional management of stress eating

As with emotional management, nutritional management of stress eating may also involve describing what you’re feeling and identifying your hunger cues. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some steps you can take. 

How do I know if I’m stress eating?

Getting to know your hunger and fullness cues is key when learning to determine if you’re stress eating. Here’s a handy hunger scale to help you determine your hunger cues. For each meal, try to see which number you would rate your hunger at. 

This rating scale ranges from 1 to 10, where 1 is extremely painful hunger and 10 is extremely painful fullness. By regularly practicing checking in with your hunger, this method will help you listen and become more in tune with your hunger and fullness cues. 

Hunger scale for mindful eating
Try to check in with yourself during meals in order to learn how to listen to your hunger and fullness cues

Just try to write down in each box which number feels more “right” during each meal. An easy way is to notice which physical sensations are associated with each number. This way, you have a clear way to “visualize” your hunger cues. Try it for a day or two and see what you learn about yourself!

Eating slowly and mindfully will also help you get more in tune with your hunger and fullness signals, and over time it’ll be easier to “read” them. 

What should I eat when I’m stressed out?

If you really feel the need to eat, by all means eat! It’s very important we honor our hunger and feed our bodies when they need energy. However, if you feel that it’s hard to get a grip on stress eating, then try the following tactics:

  • Try to have more healthy, filling foods on hand.These are usually foods that are high in protein, fiber, healthy fats, or all three! For example:
    • Greek yogurt
    • Whole wheat crackers
    • Cheese sticks
    • Whole fruit with the peel (if edible)
    • Whole vegetables
    • Avocado
    • Unsalted nuts and seeds
  • But don’t eliminate your favorite comfort foods. As we saw, comfort foods do have a place in your diet, and they actually may be able to help regulate stress. Practice purpose as you savor your favorite foods, instead of restricting them completely, which is just a recipe for disconnection from your inner signals.
  • Pre-prepare snacks. Prepping snacks and having them available is helpful when you need something at a moment’s notice. Snacks are also a great way to get the energy and nutrients you need in order to curb deprivation-based stress eating.
  • Make sure you’re well hydrated. We can sometimes confuse hunger signals when what we really need is hydration. Water, tea, or milk are some great options.
  • A healthy helping of self-compassion. In my professional opinion, one of the best things to eat when experiencing difficult emotions is a big, heaping plate of…. self-compassion. Sometimes, emotions are just too complex, we may not have developed the tools to manage them adequately, and controlling certain impulses can be too difficult. We’re human, after all! The more love and compassion we give ourselves and our struggles, the more at peace we can be with ourselves. So the next time you “overindulge” on some cookie dough when stressed out, remember that it can be a normal response for many of us, and there are ways to work through our stressors. No guilt allowed! This brings me to the final point….

Professional counseling for stress eating

Dietetics professional
A healthcare provider is your best bet for getting stress eating under control

If you feel that your stress eating is something that’s concerning you or you’ve been dealing with this stress response for a long time, please don’t hesitate to contact a healthcare provider such as a:

  • Doctor
  • A psychologist or other mental health professional
  • Registered Dietitian

Or a combination of the above. Stress eating has a very strong mental and emotional health component. Any attempts to work through this response will not likely yield long-term results unless we get to the root cause of it. I know it may feel difficult to deal with stress eating, but it’s even more difficult when you’re trying to go at it alone (and you shouldn’t have to!)

Buy it here: Books you can download on emotional eating

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