What’s Eating You: Using Food to Cope With Stress
When life is piling on the stress, you could find yourself piling on a few pounds. Many people turn to eating food, usually high in fat and sugar, to help them cope with stress. Over time, those extra calories and fat can lead to weight gain. Other people do the exact opposite when faced with stress—eating less food than usual or skipping meals altogether.
Whether you’re eating too much or too little, using food to help you deal with emotions, such as stress, may lead to poor weight management. Here’s more information about why people often turn to food for comfort, along with some ideas to help curb emotional eating.
Why Does Emotional Eating Occur?
The link between stress and eating most likely begins in the brain. When faced with a real threat, the body releases chemicals to help you either fight or run away. These chemicals also help curb hunger for a short period of time. However, when faced with ongoing, long-term stress (such as health or relationship problems), many people turn to eating high-fat, high-calorie foods for comfort.
Food and your mood
Studies show that eating high-fat foods may help you feel content and satisfied. However, these feelings may be short-lived—foods high in fat actually can increase stress hormones and help keep them high.
What is the real trouble with emotional eating? Once the joy of eating fades, the feelings that caused you to eat in the first place remain. In fact, you might even feel worse after eating the amount or type of food that you did. That's why it’s important to learn the differences between physical and emotional hunger.
Physical vs emotional hunger
Making a connection between eating and your feelings is not always easy. Using a journal can help. Be sure to write down:
- What you ate
- How much you ate
- How you felt at that time (such as being stressed, bored, or anxious)
How to stop emotional eating
If you discover that you’re eating due to stress:
- Find a replacement activity to do instead. Take a 10-minute break to reenergize. Listen to some feel-good tunes. Do an activity that you enjoy until the urge to eat passes.
- Take a moment before reaching for food. Do you rush through the day without giving yourself a chance to unwind? Take a few minutes when you get home to relax before you eat. Then think about how you’re feeling at that time.
- Get rid of the foods that tempt you. Find yourself reaching for the same foods when feeling stressed? Keep them out of the house so you will not be tempted to eat them.
- Eat a balanced diet. Eating a balanced diet—one that contains foods from all of the major food groups—helps give your body the nutrition and energy it needs to fight stress. Having regular meals, carrying nutritious snacks, and planning your meals also may be helpful.
Breaking the cycle
Breaking the cycle of emotional eating can be challenging. However, there are many professionals you can turn to for support. These include:
- Counselors and therapists who can teach you healthier ways to deal with stress
- Dietitians and nutritionists who can help you make healthy food choices
- Fitness experts who can get your body's feel-good chemicals moving through exercise instead of food
If you continue using food to cope with stress or if you have any other questions or concerns, talk to your health care professional. He or she may want to ensure that you’re managing your weight safely, and if needed, may suggest professionals who can help you have a healthier relationship with food.