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August 17, 2020 / Emily Polson

How to Control Your Stress Eating: 4 Strategies to Conquer Emotional Eating

A pile of cookies on a black napkin on a cutting board with crumbs

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is a common issue that many people try to remedy with comfort food. Sugar cravings, salty, creamy, or crunchy foods seem to make us “feel better” when we’ve had a stressful day or are going through a rough time. Yet this tendency to eat when stressed never seems to actually make us feel better in the long term, and instead, may lead to feelings of guilt and weight gain.

If emotional eating is something you consciously or unconsciously experience, you’re not alone. There are several ways to battle the urge to soothe your feelings with food. These methods, backed by scientists and health professionals, will help you recognize the root cause of comfort eating and work on long-term solutions for managing stress.

What is Stress Eating?

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is a way of consuming food to help ease negative emotions or pain. Emotions such as sadness, boredom, stress, fear, worry, guilt, shame, or loneliness may feel overwhelming, especially if triggered by a major life event, such as:

There are a number of reasons why people are drawn to food in the midst of stressful situations, but many of them are related to the feeling of comfort that food may provide, hence the term “comfort foods.” They may help relieve the tension of whatever feels stressful or worrisome.

What’s helpful to remember is that stress eating eases your feelings temporarily, but the big emotions are likely to return. The following sections offer helpful tips on how to avoid stress eating and help you maintain a healthy lifestyle, even during challenging times.

1. Recognize Your Emotional Eating Patterns to Avoid Stress Eating

In order to learn how to stop stress-eating, it’s helpful to recognize your personal triggers: when, where, and why you’re eating. Dr. Sherry Pagoto from the University of Massachusetts Medical School recommends keeping a food journal and recording your reason for eating right alongside the list of what you ate.

You can also try the HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) method for helping you identify what you feel when you eat. When you track these emotions alongside your food intake, you’ll start to see the patterns in your eating behavior. Do you always end up binging on potato chips after a difficult day at work? Do you tend to eat ice cream at night when you’re feeling lonely?

The tendency to eat in stressful times is a learned response: the more often you use food to cope with stress, the stronger the habit becomes. Eating high-fat, high-sugar foods reinforces this association between food and comfort, according to a 2015 study from the University of California Davis. Once you recognize this pattern, though, you can take steps to change it.

2. Swap Out Comfort Foods for Nourishing Snacks

The first step to reducing the amount of stress eating you do is to keep the foods you normally turn to out of the house. That’s why identifying your emotional eating patterns, including what you eat, is so important. If you don’t keep potato chips in your house, it’s more difficult to reach for them when you’re feeling down.

Because our association between eating and comfort is so strong, however, quitting suddenly doesn’t work for everyone. In order to retrain your brain, you can replace comfort foods with healthier alternatives.

The Cleveland Clinic recommends eating foods that can actually help you cope with stress, such as antioxidant-rich green or white tea, cherries, and dark chocolate. This way, your brain still enjoys the feeling of snacking and feeling satisfied without the effects of eating high-sugar, high-sodium, and high-calorie foods.

3. Choose Alternatives to Food to Help you Cope

While food may feel like it can help you avoid stress in the moment, it doesn’t necessarily address the root cause. In this case, it may be helpful to find alternatives to help you process your emotions.

Consider things you can do in place of eating during stressful times. Some ideas include:

A 2017 study showed that practicing mindfulness may help highly stressed individuals reduce their tendency toward emotional eating. Mindfulness is not just about recognizing the desire to eat for comfort, but about being present and noticing the emotions that cause stress in the first place. This is one of the many benefits mindful meditation may have on your overall health.

4. Think Ahead to How You May Feel

When choosing how to process your emotions and learning how to control stress eating, ask yourself if your actions will make you feel better or worse in the aftermath. For example, choosing to go for a walk or taking time to read will have a very different effect on how you feel compared to consuming a large amount of food.

This simple exercise can help you to reconsider how your choices in the moment will make you feel in the long term. The key is to understand what the true cause of your stress eating is; and with this knowledge, you’ll find it easier to choose options that don’t focus on food.

Engage in Sustainable Eating and Lifestyle Choices

In addition to the tips above, here are a few other suggestions to help you make nourishing food and lifestyle choices when you’re feeling stressed:

The Takeaway

When it comes to controlling stress eating, understanding your body and triggers and having a plan for action are your best lines of defense. Whether that’s calling a friend, taking a walk, or adjusting your diet, there are a number of ways to support your body and mind in times of stress that don’t focus on eating.

At PlateJoy, we’re committed to help people eat well, feel good, and nourish their entire being. We offer personalized clean eating meal plans to suit any diet, including grocery lists, and even having your groceries delivered. Learn more and customize your weekly meals to feel good and quell those temptations to stress eat.

Emily Polson

Emily is a writer, reader, and traveler from Iowa who has visited twenty-one countries and lived in three. Her first publication was an article in Muse magazine about her summer job as a corn detasseler. She’s a Slytherin, an amateur ukulele player, and a Peter Pan enthusiast. You can follow Emily on Twitter @emilycpolson.


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