Deanna Minich, PhD
Have you ever felt like reaching for the pint of strawberry ice cream after a long day at work?
Or eating potato chips after an argument with a loved one?
Or even craving chocolate when feeling bored or isolated?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be “stress eating,” or what is commonly referred to as “emotional eating.” Stress eating is turning to food in times of psychological distress as a form of comfort rather than in response to hunger. Whether it’s stress or a specific emotion, like sadness, we may develop a coping response by eating, either overeating or undereating. In general, emotional eating involves eating nutrient-poor foods, is often repetitive and automatic, and is not connected to body senses of physical hunger, but to an emotional stimulus.1 Some of us are more prone to being high reactors to stress and may be more vulnerable than others.2
Here’s a quick checklist to see whether you might be engaging in stress eating:
- Am I eating because I’m feeling emotional about something?
- Am I craving food as a reward?
- Am I bored or feeling isolated?
- Am I stressed without feeling in control of my life?
- Am I neglecting my body’s sense of hunger?
- Am I out of touch with my body?
- Am I eating in a way that is automatic and repetitive?
Of course, stress eating may occur periodically throughout your life. It is natural to feel the need to comfort yourself in response to something threatening. Where it becomes problematic is when it becomes cyclical and difficult to escape the eventual feeling of powerlessness, guilt, and shame that can settle in as a result.
Here are some things you can do to break the cycle of stress eating:
- Be body aware: Practice checking in with your body on a regular basis. Most of us live “in our head” and not in our belly or even down to our toes. When you get the urge to eat, allow yourself to breathe, connect deeply to your body by getting in touch with your sensations through a simple act of focus or movement, like wiggling your toes. Once you are more present, ask yourself whether you need to eat in that moment or if you are responding to an emotion. If you are responding to an emotion, let that feeling fully express. Set an “emotional date” if you can’t express it right there and then, so you come back to it later. You might even find that when you feel an emotion, a specific part of your body responds to let you know, like flushing of your skin or a butterfly-like sensation of unsettledness in the gut. Honor that impulse from the body and either act in the moment or commit to it at a designated time.
- Exercise your emotional muscle: Most people have lost the language of emotion. When people ask how we are doing, we may give an automatic answer of “fine.” We may even intellectualize or rationalize our emotions to the extent that we make ourselves feel like we should not be having the emotions. Some may believe emotional expression will be perceived as weakness. However, emotions are powerful forces in that they drive our behaviors. It’s been said that we move toward pleasure and away from pain. Therefore, it is best to get in touch with what we are feeling, identify the emotion, and let it flow in healthy ways.3 Emotions can become problematic when we vent them in a volatile way or we repress them inside. The more we can check in with how we are feeling, the better. Try using a log at bedtime to write down key words of how you felt that day. You can also do a quick emotional check-in on your smart phone by looking at the emojis and selecting ones that resemble your feelings. Engage a friend in the check-in process via text during days that are difficult.
- Develop eating alternatives: Once you begin to get keyed in to how your body is responding and how your emotions are surfacing, you become more aware of your responses and can develop ways to navigate eating situations. If you have the urge to eat, and you know that you are not hungry and that you are feeling emotional, it might be worthwhile to have an alternative ready. Be prepared by making a specific list of at least five healthy things you can do instead of eating. For example, walking outside for 15 minutes in the fresh air, calling a friend and talking for 10 minutes, journaling in a notebook for a few minutes, or even taking a power nap. Removing yourself from the situation and resetting your neurochemistry is one way to rewire and refire your brain so that you can make other choices. Eventually, you’ll come to use different strategies when the need to unnecessarily eat arises.
- Have healthy foods available: If you get a bout of uncontrollable munchies and can’t seem to replace it with an alternative on your list, aim for foods that you will feel good about eating so you don’t have the guilt that can result from emotional eating. Ideas for healthy foods include a banana with almond butter, a pitted date rolled in coconut, an avocado with sea salt, or vegetable (beet, carrot) chips. As research suggests, eating whole, plant-based foods, such as more fruits and vegetables, is associated with a greater sense of wellbeing, creativity, curiosity, and even happiness.4 On the other hand, eating fast food and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with risk for depression.5,6 Help offset your rollercoaster moods by selecting colorful foods!
- Ensure your body has enough nutrients: Our brain chemistry can be affected by the nutrients in our diet. For example, the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, which all play a role in stress response, are determined by nutrients available to the body, including certain amino acids, vitamins (e.g., vitamin C and B complex), and minerals (e.g., magnesium).7-13 Stress tends to drain our body of these precious reserves, and, as a result, we may end up with imbalanced neurochemistry.14 Therefore, it’s essential to look at what is essential for a healthy diet and incorporate foods and dietary supplements to meet daily nutrient requirements.
Stress eating can be a challenging cycle to break. There are several ways to address the cycle, whether through body awareness, emotional expression, alternative options, better choices, or simply, brain chemistry balance through nutrient sufficiency. Try out a variety of these approaches to see if you feel more empowered in your eating in times of distress.
- Nguyen-Michel ST et al. Dietary correlates of emotional eating in adolescence. Appetite. 2007;49(2):494-499.
- Newman E et al. Daily hassles and eating behaviour: The role of cortisol reactivity status. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007;32(2):125-132.
- Whiteside U et al. Difficulties regulating emotions: Do binge eaters have fewer strategies to modulate and tolerate negative affect? Eating Behaviors. 2007;8(2):162-169.
- Mujcic R et al. Evolution of well-being and happiness after increases in consumption of fruit and vegetables. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(8):1504-1510.
- Huang Q et al. Linking what we eat to our mood: A review of diet, dietary antioxidants, and depression. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(9).
- Sánchez-Villegas A et al. Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr. 2012;15(3):424-432.
- Fernstrom JD. Effects on the diet on brain neurotransmitters. Metabolism. 1977;26(2):207-223.
- Wurtman RJ et al. Control of brain monoamine synthesis by diet and plasma amino acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 1975;28(6):638-647.
- Meredith ME et al. Regulation of embryonic neurotransmitter and tyrosine hydroxylase protein levels by ascorbic acid. Brain Res. 2013;1539:7-14.
- Linus Pauling Institute. Cognitive function in depth. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/cognitive-function. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Harrison FE et al. Vitamin C function in the brain: Vital role of the ascorbate transporter (SVCT2). Free Radic Biol Med. 2009;46(6):719-730.
- Mehrotra R et al. Nutrition and anemia in end-stage renal disease. 2013. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/pyridoxine. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Cuciureanu MD et al. Magnesium and stress.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Singh K. Nutrient and stress management. J Nutr Food Sci. 2016;6:528
(Arcticle c/o Metagenics Blog)