Stress eating, or emotional eating, is when you eat in order to escape whatever bad feelings you’re experiencing, in the hope that food will make you feel better. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, but more often it’s just a mindless response to a vague, negative emotion. Emotional eating happens to many of us from time to time. Maybe you’ve cheered yourself up with a bowl of ice cream after an unusually tough day, or sneaked a few French fries from your best friend’s plate while recapping a disastrous date. But when emotional eating gets out of hand—when eating is the first and most common response to negative thoughts and feelings, especially when you start to packing in weight—it’s time to get a grip.
To overcome stress eating, we need to distinguish stress eating from true, physical hunger. Following are some of the telltale signs you are engaging in stress eating:
- It comes on suddenly- you are craving chocolate ice cream all of a sudden when you are feeling tense . On the other hand, physical hunger tends to come on gradually. You’re starting to feel hungry but you can wait to eat, which gives you some time to choose wisely and satisfy that hunger with something that’s good for you.
- Stress eating usually causes a craving for a food that’s sugary, fatty and high calorie—and often very specific (not simply “chocolate,” but “Butterscotch bliss with hot fudge from Cherry Smash at Wiles Road in Coral Springs”). When you’re physically hungry, food in general sounds good to you. You’re willing to consider several options to satisfy your physical hunger, which means you’re more likely to make a better healthier choice.
- When emotions are the driver, it’s easy to ignore what your stomach is telling you—and you wind up eating way too much while attempting to make yourself feel better.
- Stress eating might lift your mood momentarily – then, just as quickly, shame and guilt often move in.
Tips to deal with stress eating behaviors:
- Own up to your feelings. You know that emotions are the trigger for your stress eating, so why not acknowledge them? It’s okay to be mad or lonely or bored sometimes. The feelings may be unpleasant but they’re not dangerous, and you don’t always need to ‘fix’ them.
- Find alternatives to eating, unlearn your bad stress eating habit. Take a few moments to reflect on your feelings and think of ways you can solve your problem. In the mean time, doing other activities as simple as drinking a big glass of water with lemon slices, taking a walk and meditating (or simply taking a deep breath).
- Wait it out. Stress eaters often are afraid that if they don’t satisfy the urge to eat, the craving will just get worse. But when they practice delaying tactics, they’re often surprised that the urge simply passes.
Of course, in real life, stress eating coping skill is a bit more complicated and never a straight “either-or” feeling. There are always those moment you are both physical hungry and emotional stress at the same time. An up-front well thought out, well prepared snack, such as a homemade baked granola made of whole rolled oats with raw nuts, seeds, dried chopped fruits with a touch of maple syrup or raw honey, will probably satisfy your hunger and leave you with less guilty feeling afterward.
Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to work on your stress eating. If you find that these tactics aren’t working for you well, solicit your health care provider for emotional support and help.