When you’re stressed to the max, you can sometimes lose your appetite. Adrenaline is pumping, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, and that physiological state puts your hunger on hold. This might sound familiar if you’ve ever “forgotten” to eat lunch because you were having a super-busy day.
But if you’re under long-term stress, AKA chronic stress, that’s a completely different story. Your adrenal glands release cortisol, a hormone that’s known, among other things, to increase your appetite. Numerous studies have linked physical and emotional distress to an increase in the consumption of foods high in fat and sugar.
What are we getting at here? It turns out emotional eating is a real thing and your hormones very well could be the devil on your shoulder, telling you to finish off that sleeve of cookies or to eat a few too many servings of those potato chips.
But, it doesn’t have to go down this way. Here, experts explain emotional eating, and share tips for how you can stop emotional eating once and for all.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Sari Chait, a licensed clinical psychologist in the greater Boston area who specializes in health psychology, works with people to help them manage their weight, and she says that emotional eating is a common focus of treatment. As stress levels go up, feelings of depression and anxiety increase, Chait explains. Eating junk food can cause a momentary increase in positive emotions, or eat least briefly dull negative emotions. Over time, people begin to associate eating with their negative emotions.
On top of this, many people also use food in response to positive emotions — for example, they reward themselves for getting through a rough week with a treat.
“The connections we make between food and feelings often start young and get reinforced over time every time someone eats in response to an emotion,” she says.
People with trauma histories, eating disorders, anxiety and depression are even more vulnerable when it comes to stress eating, says Laura Umfer, a licensed clinical psychologist with specialties in eating disorders and nutrition.
“However, it is more common for people under stress to use food to self-soothe and avoid feelings,” she explains.
Other patterns around emotional eating? It turns out women are more likely than men to be emotional eaters, according to the American Psychological Association. Forty-three percent of women surveyed had reported having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress, compared to 32 percent of men.
Here’s how experts say you can stop letting your emotions control your eating habits.
Make It Harder To Access Those Trigger Foods
Your best bet is to keep trigger foods out of your house altogether, says Chait. “For example, if you crave salt when you’re stressed and tend to indulge in chips, don’t keep chips in your house,” she says.
But if the foods you eat in response to emotions are stocked in your house, put them in a difficult-to-reach spot, like the very back of a top shelf, Chait suggests.
“That extra time and effort to get it can sometimes be enough to make you pause and remember that you don’t actually want to eat it,” she says.
Have A Backup Plan For Managing Your Stress
Have a plan in place when you’re upset to help you cope, Chait suggests.
“[M]astering something like deep breathing or a mindful meditation can be really useful to help calm your body’s physical response to stress,” she says.
The key here is to practice it ahead of time so you’re well prepared when the stress kicks in, according to Chait. Tell yourself: “If I have a stressful day at work, I will do my deep breathing exercise instead of eating cookies.”
Put Your Cell Phone Away When You Eat
Changing emotional eating can start by developing mindful eating skills, says Candice Seti, The Weight Loss Therapist. This can be done by being connected to your food and experiencing it on all levels, including smell, sight, taste and texture, says Seti, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, a certified personal trainer and a certified nutrition coach.
“A simple first step to combating emotional eating and developing mindful eating skills is to start eating screen-free,” she says.
That means no TV, phone or tablets distracting you.
Don’t Fall Off Track After One Bad Meal (Or Day)
Don’t let one episode of emotional eating derail your whole day, Chait says.
“If you overate or indulged in unhealthy food in response to your emotions, it’s important to acknowledge that it happened but then try not to judge it,” she says.
Many people will continue to eat unhealthy for the rest of that day, week or month because they feel like they already blew it, explains Chait. But that usually just leads to feeling worse. It’s important to instead recognize what happened and try to come up with something else to do — take a walk, knit, call a friend — to get you out of the pattern of emotional eating.
Consider Therapy Or Meeting With A Registered Dietitian
If you think you’re a stress eater, a good first step is to make sure you’re getting proper nutrition throughout the day, says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist. You may be eating more in the evenings because you haven’t properly fueled yourself during the day.
Meeting with a registered dietitian can help you come up with a well-rounded eating plan. But if you’re getting proper nutrients and you’re an emotional eater, therapy could help. People emotionally eat for a variety of reasons, but oftentimes it’s to numb themselves or detach from feelings that seem too intense, Ziskind explains. Working with a therapist can help you understand those feelings so you can release them in positive ways.
Are you an emotional eater? How do you stop yourself from snacking when you’re stressed?