Stress eating, otherwise known as emotional eating, is a habitual eating pattern where people use food to help them cope with difficult situations. Most of us experience this at one time or another – eating chocolate when we are bored at work or ordering a takeaway to cheer us up after a difficult day.
Emotional eating is both physical and psychological and is a coping mechanism to help alleviate painful or challenging emotions and situations.
When we are stressed, our brains release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are our fight or flight hormones and affect the way we perceive and respond to a threat. For some people, the onset of these stress hormones will result in emotional issues such as depression and anxiety and the emergence of addictive behaviours as a coping mechanism.
Consuming delicious food, particularly sugary foods, activates the same pleasure reward circuits in the brain as alcohol, cocaine, and other addictive substances. Dopamine is released, providing feelings of bliss, calm and contentment, which lead to cravings, repeated stress behaviours, and a decrease in the pleasurable effects as more is needed to produce the same ‘high’.
Stress eating can become a problem when a person emotionally overeats, causing obesity-related health issues, food addiction, or when a person can no longer face life’s challenges without turning to food for comfort. Everyday situations can become dominated by food, and a person’s health, weight and happiness can all be negatively affected.
Stress, depression, and anxiety are common triggers for emotional eating, although other frequent triggers include:
- Boredom – it is easy to turn to food to keep us occupied when we are bored. Due to the busy lives we tend to lead, we can find ourselves at a loss when we have free time to fill. What else could you do instead that is not food-related?
- Fatigue – if we are tired, we are less mindful and tend to forget to eat, or we overeat. We may use food as a distraction or to provide a burst of energy. Ask yourself if food is the answer in this situation. It is also possible that you are dehydrated, and a drink and some fresh air are more beneficial than turning to food.
- Habits – we all have a variety of emotional eating habits triggered by nostalgia from popcorn with a movie, ice cream in the park, or Friday night takeaway after a long week at work. Ask yourself if these are mindless habits and if they actually provide you with the emotional results you think they do.
- Social – we can create social habits where we associate certain friends or activities with particular foods. Friends can also encourage mindless eating habits or the consumption of negative types of foods. For example, always getting a cappuccino and cake after yoga class with friends. Ask yourself if it is what you really want to do or if you’re acting out of habit.
Enjoying food as a reward, a pleasure, or comfort from time to time is normal; however, when it happens regularly and when food is used to cope with emotions, a pattern of disordered eating can arise, which can lead to physical and mental health issues.
Differences Between Stress Eating and Hunger
One of the key indicators of stress eating is consuming food when not hungry or even when already full. A vital way to move beyond stress eating patterns is to notice if you are physically hungry or not. Here are some of the main differences:
- Comes on suddenly
- Needs instant gratification
- Causes specific food cravings, especially those high in fat, carbs and sugar
- Continues even when full
- Causes loss of control and feelings of guilt or shame
- Comes on gradually
- Does not need instant satisfaction
- A range of foods are appealing
- Is satisfied once is full
- Does not cause negative emotions
Help for Stress Eating
The first step is to hold yourself accountable for your relationship between food and emotional states of mind. This is best done with compassion, care, and patience, rather than through chastising. The goal is two-fold; to create positive states of mind free from triggers and seek alternative coping mechanisms when faced with stress. It is also important to remember that a positive support network can help you through difficult times. I invite you to join my Food Addiction Facebook Group, where you will find a motivated group of like-minded individuals.
Use the following questions to find out if you, or someone you care about, has stress eating tendencies:
- Do you use food as a reward?
- Does food comfort you?
- Do you feel out of control when you eat?
- Do you eat more when stressed?
- Do you eat even when you are not hungry?
- Do you eat until you feel too full?
The core component in tackling stress eating is to become mindful of the people, situations and foods that trigger stress eating.
Practising mindfulness and being sure to ask oneself if you are emotionally hungry or physically hungry can be enough to prevent cravings from turning into reality. However, when stress eating occurs, it is helpful to keep a food journal to highlight the situations in which you were triggered and gain insight for responding differently and creatively the next time. The journey towards a healthy relationship with food will take time and practice.
All of us wish to live a life free from addiction in which we are the best versions of ourselves; happy, joyful and connected. Through understanding, action can then arise.
If you would like to seek help or learn more about any stress eating issues, please contact me, Dr Bunmi Aboaba, Food Addiction Coach by following this link.
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 Lennerz, Belinda, and Jochen K Lennerz. “Food Addiction, High-Glycemic-Index Carbohydrates, And Obesity“. Clinical Chemistry, vol 64, no. 1, 2018, pp. 64-71. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1373/clinchem.2017.273532. Accessed 16 June 2021.
 van Strien, Tatjana et al. “Hunger, Inhibitory Control And Distress-Induced Emotional Eating“. Appetite, vol 79, 2014, pp. 124-133. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.04.020. Accessed 16 June 2021.