What is stress eating and 3 tips to overcome it

  • 4 Minutes Read
Joanna Kriehn
Joanna Kriehn, MS, RDN, CDCES - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES)

What is stress eating and how might it lead to weight gain? Here are a few strategies to help you or someone you know who's eating habits have shifted as a result of increased life stress.

What is stress eating

What is stress eating and why do we do it?

Life is full of an endless list of things to worry about. Whether it's financial strain, relationship tensions, health problems or general life uncertainty. When we are feeling stressed it is natural to look for ways to feel better and eating is a convenient way to take our mind off things, at least in the short term.

Many people are aware that when stress levels rise (whether at work or home or both) their eating habits change. There is a term for this and it is called stress eating. Stress or emotional eating is simply a way to manage or soothe negative emotions. When we eat for emotional reasons we may be seeking a break from whatever we are doing or thinking. Or we may be turning to food to calm certain feelings such as when we are sad, frustrated or lonely. Some people restrict their eating when they are stressed. Though more commonly people eat more when stress levels rise. Continuing to reach for a snack or overeating at meals whenever a new stressor hits is a recipe for weight gain and here's why-

What's the connection between stress and overeating?

For some people, eating momentarily quiets the mind and provides some distance from a stressful situation. Biologically, when stress levels are chronically high, this corresponds to an increase in cortisol levels in the body (a hormone released in response to a real or perceived threat) which can result in an increased appetite. Hundreds of years ago this was an advantage. Hunger served as a motivator to continue hunting for more food and encouraged eating so that we as a species had the energy we needed to fend off predators and survive.

Stress not only increases our appetite, it also alters the types of foods we reach for. We generally crave foods high in sugar and fat (in search of quick energy) when we are stressed. Which explains why many people reach for foods like chips or sweets as opposed to salad, soups and fresh meats when under stress.

If you are concerned about your weight and stress eating has been your way of dealing with or managing emotional discomfort, psychology experts inform us to think twice before making drastic changes in coping mechanisms or eating habits. If you are experiencing intense stress, this may not be the most realistic time to make dramatic changes to your eating. When your stress levels are really high you need to cut yourself some slack. This means holding off on starting a new diet, cutting out favorite foods and committing to detailed calorie tracking. Do this until you get a handle on your stress. Otherwise your attempts may backfire, potentially leaving you feeling worse about yourself and your situation.

1. Tap into mindfulness to combat stress and overeating

What if instead of restricting certain foods/food groups in hopes of losing weight you went in a different direction? Perhaps this is a good time to start paying more attention to lifestyle habits and general body awareness. In fact, research shows that body awareness and mindfulness in general serves as an effective way to reduce overall life stress.

Mindfulness is defined as a mental state of focusing one's attention on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. When under stress many people eat their meals and snacks quickly, failing to pay attention to the experience. By putting your screens away, slowing down and savoring your meal, you'll be able to appreciate your meal and get in touch with hunger and fullness. Many people find that if they slow down and remain mindful of what they are eating they feel full on less and this provides a better foundation for weight loss.

2. Make sure to prioritize regular meals if you are prone to stress eating.

When people are stressed, their attention is pulled in a lot of different directions at once. They feel especially busy and because of this they don't always prioritize their own eating. Perhaps you can relate? You are taking care of everyone else in the family, making meals and lunches for your kids and don't get around to eating something substantial for yourself until after lunch. And yet once you do finally sit down and eat you over-do-it because you are ravenous.

Research shows that eating regular meals helps decrease feelings of hunger and increases feelings of fullness. For guidance on formulating a balanced meal check out MyNetDiary.com. Try planning out your meals the night before. Set aside foods in the refrigerator and cupboard to minimize preparation. If you tend to take care of others and forget to take care of yourself, set a reminder on your phone to stop and eat in the middle of the day.

3. Find pleasure in your life

Have you ever noticed that when you are engaged in an activity you love you forget about time and forget about eating? For some people, reconnecting with hobbies or pleasurable activities helps them avoid stress eating. When we don't have sources of enjoyment built into our life we begin to unconsciously associate eating as our only source of pleasure. To dive deeper into understanding stress or emotional eating and learn how to regain pleasure in your life check out this book: 50 ways to soothe yourself without food

Asking for help

You may want to consider additional support if you feel like stress eating may be preventing you from losing weight or maintaining a healthy relationship with food,. Working with a nutrition and/or mental health professional has numerous benefits. For starters you will have support (realizing you are not alone) in your journey to end stress eating. Professionals offer alternative ideas on managing stress and help you develop an individualized plan that takes your unique health and life circumstances into consideration.

To find help from a licensed therapist

www.betterhelp.com or https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists

To find help from a registered dietitian

https://www.teladoc.com/nutrition/ or https://www.eatright.org/find-an-expert

Bottom line

Eating when stressed provides temporary relief from what is bothering us though leaves us feeling guilty and discouraged. To get a handle on stress eating try incorporating some mindfulness, eat regular meals, reconnect with pleasurable activities and consider professional help. These are just a few ideas to get you started. In fact, there are lots of ways to manage stress in a healthier way so that it doesn't have a negative impact on your eating habits and weight.

What can you do today to start finding healthier ways to manage stress?

To learn more about this topic

3 ways you can stop emotional eating today
Soothe Yourself without Food
How Binge Eating Became A Recognized Eating Disorder

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Weight Loss->Emotional & Mindful Eating
Apr 28, 2020

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