One minute you’re reaching for a light snack while trying to meet deadline, then suddenly you realize you’ve eaten an entire bag of popcorn. As emotional beings, everyone can relate to this at some point in their lives. Sometimes it feels better to eat tasty food than deal with the overwhelming thoughts swarming your head. But whatever relief you felt immediately disappears with the last bite. But once you get into the habit of turning to food for comfort, you may not know how to stop stress eating.
How do you define stress eating, anyway? “Stress eating is when you eat in response to your emotions, as opposed to really nutritionally filling your body,” says Allison Chase, PhD, the regional clinical director at Eating Recovery Center. It’s characterized by eating more than one would consume and eating very rapidly when you’re not hungry, she explains.
It makes sense that some people turn to food when negative emotions come up—eating is a very calming experience. Because here’s the thing that’s often overlooked: It engages all five senses. Smell and taste are obvious, but a food’s texture and feel as well as what it looks like are very important too. As for hearing? Think: thee crunch of a crisp apple, or the slurp of a warming soup. While it’s good manners to refrain from munching loud enough for the entire table to hear, you can always hear yourself chew and swallow.
Emotions are very much a physiological experience as well, Chase points out. “From a sensory input standpoint, food is able to serve a purpose to calm, occupy, and distract oneself,” she says, especially when your feelings are overwhelming. But not listening to our body’s nutritional needs, i.e., stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort, doesn’t alleviate stress.
There are other ways to cope with negative feelings than turning to something external like food, says Chase. Changing a stress-eating habit takes hard work and practice, but thankfully there are experts to guide us there. Read on as nutrition and mental health pros share tips and skills to manage your stress better and tame those stress-eating tendencies.
Chase recommends first and foremost to increase your awareness around when and what situations trigger stress eating. “Focus on recognizing when and where you’re doing it and what types of food you’re reaching for,” she says.
Keep track of what’s happening and what’s going on in the moment, and really look at the stress and emotions involved. Maybe you just had a really rough meeting, and realize that every time you meet with this particular coworker, you end up engaging in this behavior. “We’re going to have to address the stress and the emotion even more so and before tracking your food,” says Chase.
Once you recognize this pattern, you can look into what other strategies you can use that are a good fit. Remember: It’s an individualized sort of solution, so find what works for you.
Consider keeping a log in a food journal or even in your smartphone for a bit about the times of day or circumstances when you typically get cravings, plus how you feel at those times. Maybe you get overwhelmed after dinner about tomorrow’s to-do list and go hunting for ice cream, or you know you go hard on snacking whenever you’re dealing with stressful travel. If you know your patterns, you can spot them, pause, and have an internal convo with yourself about whether you’re really hungry.
When Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, the author of Body Kindness, is feeling emotionally driven hunger start to kick in, she checks in to see if this is a time of day when she usually has cravings. If it is, she makes sure she eats something that will satisfy her instead of going for the first thing she can reach. This way she can think more intuitively about her “typical needs and preferences,” she says.
If impending deadlines routinely have you elbow-deep in a bag of something salty, be extra conscious that you’re sitting down for regularly scheduled meals (and snacks) on those days, says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in eating behaviors. Planning to eat breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner keeps her from mindlessly eating just because she’s feeling pressured.
“By eating regularly throughout the day, we are setting ourselves up for success,” Goldman explains. “If stress happens (which it does because life happens) and we are physiologically hungry [rather than just emotionally hungry], then it is more difficult to make healthy choices.”
One of the key ways to eating more intuitively is to stop and check in with your brain and body to figure out what caused this hunger confusion in the first place, according to Monica Auslender Moreno, RD, a nutrition consultant for Essence Nutrition. Here’s the general thought process you want to move through, step by step:
The brain-to-belly scan is Moreno’s way of getting to know herself and her hunger cues more intimately. “Stopping and processing emotions before or during a nibble marathon can be the first step to intuitive eating enlightenment when you’re feeling cagey,” she says.
“If I am stressed, I may make a to-do list in order to organize my thoughts and my upcoming schedule—or I may meditate or go for a short walk,” says Alyssa Lavy, RD, of Alyssa Lavy Nutrition & Wellness. “I then check in with my hunger and my desire to eat again. If I still want the food, I allow myself permission to eat that food and enjoy it.”
She warns, though, to keep an eye on portion sizes. But eating a reasonably sized snack or meal should be much easier after taking that moment to emotionally cool off. Because now, your choice to eat will be an intentional one.
But sometimes, even after a long, reflective walk, the urge to stress eat even though you’re not experiencing physiological hunger might still be there—especially if it’s a day when, say, family issues are weighing especially heavily on you. So, instead of turning to your go-to stress snack right away, Goldman suggests chewing some gum or drinking tea to hold you over. Sometimes all it takes to get your brain off of food (and back to what matters) is the sensation of putting something in your mouth to satisfy and calm the mind a little.
It’s not uncommon to confuse dehydration or being tired with hunger or food craving, considering that the sensations feel pretty similar. When you don’t drink enough water, your body will start relying on its stored sugar for energy, giving you a hankering for something sweet—when all you need is H20. And when you’re tired, you’ll itch for an energy boost from food even if you’re not actually hungry (and eating may just make it harder for you to fall asleep).
So before turning to snacks, hit the hay if it’s your bedtime. (That sounds obvious, but, how many nights this week did you stay up with burning eyes and a cranky stomach to finish that next episode?). To see if you’re just dehydrated, “Have a few sips of water to see if that will do the trick first,” says Goldman. If you are truly hungry, water will not be enough, she points out, so definitely eat something if you don’t feel satisfied and more energized.
Learning how to cope with your feelings can feel isolating and lonely, but you don’t have to go it alone. Calling somebody trusted, like a friend or a loved one, just to help you process your emotions is another way to curb stress-eating behaviors, says Chase.
Whenever you feel the urge, talk it out instead. Even if you don’t want to go deep into what’s going on, just having a conversation can distract you and help you move through triggering moments.
If you’re turning to snacks as a momentary comfort from stress, Goldman suggests taking a “mini-timeout” to just have that moment of honesty with yourself.
During those few minutes, take a few deep breaths and lean into what it is you’re feeling before giving into the urge to eat immediately. “If someone mindlessly eats ice cream they may feel guilty about it afterwards and that feeling of guilt will impact their next thoughts, emotions, and behaviors,” Goldman explains.
But if you take 15 minutes to check in with yourself? Even if you ultimately decide to eat the ice cream (which is tooooootally okay and honestly sometimes just necessary, let’s be real), it will feel like a conscious decision and spare you from creating a cycle of crappy feelings.
“The greatest concern is that emotional eating can take a more significant toll and result in a diagnosable eating disorder,” says Chase. “If the stress eating has gotten to the point where it is interfering with your life, it moves into the definition of a psychological disorder and you need to make sure you seek professional help.”
In any kind of social or occupational interference, whether you’re not making meetings because you’re busy eating or you’re stress eating and don’t feel like getting up in the morning, it’s very important to meet with a professional psychologist or eating specialist who is trained in these issues.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their relationship with food or suffering from disordered eating, contact the National Eating Disorders Association at nationaleatingdisorders.org or 800-931-2237.