Emotional Eating: How Stress Makes You Eat More (or Less)

woman stressed

By Mandy Parsons

We all experience personal and professional stress, perhaps even daily. And after a long day navigating life’s stressors, many of us look for a way to unwind.

For some, that outlet is exercise, while others might prefer a relaxing beverage or their favorite television show. Food is also used to self-soothe. Our go-to fast-food restaurant or sweet treat of choice is often the perfect remedy for whatever ails us.

As with most everything, a good rule of thumb to follow is “all things in moderation.” Too much of anything can have negative consequences; this is especially true when it comes to emotional eating. Overeating or restricting food as a response to stress, or any other unpleasant emotion for that matter, can have serious health ramifications.

For this reason, it’s important to be aware of the connection between food and your emotions. Understanding your emotional triggers and establishing healthy coping mechanisms goes a long way toward maintaining a balanced relationship with food.

How Emotions Affect Our Eating Habits

It’s normal to enjoy a slice of cake at a birthday party or feast with family and friends on Thanksgiving. Food is meant for more than fueling our bodies — it’s an important part of our social fabric.

However, there are times when the motivation behind our eating can be problematic. Cleveland Clinic psychologist Susan Albers says the technical definition of emotional eating is “eating in order to escape, numb, change, or amplify our feelings.” In fact, Albers notes that 75% of all our eating is emotionally driven.

How do emotions affect our eating habits? There is a biological link between stress and emotional eating. When we are under duress, stress hormones — mainly cortisol and adrenaline — come into play.

Cortisol triggers our cravings for foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. As Albers explains, “[If we] go back to ancient times, when we were stressed, we needed all the calories that we could because we were going to be involved in some sort of fight-or-flight situation.” So essentially, Albers says, when we’re stressed, it’s our ancient biology’s way of telling us to get something to eat.

emotional scaleAdrenaline is another hormone designed to help us cope with stress. It frequently has the opposite effect, causing a loss of appetite. That’s why some people forget to eat when they are facing intense situations or emotions.

Unfortunately, constantly turning to or avoiding food under stress is a risky proposition. How do you know whether you are an emotional eater, and what are its potential risks?

Signs and Risks of Emotional Eating

There is a difference between physical and emotional hunger cues. According to Healthline.com, physical hunger develops over time and is tied to the last time you ate. Those who experience physical hunger typically feel full after eating enough and stop.

Conversely, emotional hunger has an abrupt onset that is prompted by the need for comfort. Emotional eaters will often ignore fullness cues or eat until they are uncomfortably full. Other signs of emotional eating include:

  • Lack of self-control around certain foods
  • Craving specific comfort foods
  • Eating at odd times
  • Using food as a reward
  • Urge to eat when you feel strong emotions
  • Eating to excess when you are not hungry
  • Eating in secret or hiding food
  • Feelings of guilt or shame around eating

When untreated, emotional eating can produce health problems. A study published by medical journal Nutrients revealed interconnectedness among emotional eating and obesity, depression/anxiety, as well as unhealthy eating patterns.

Obesity contributes to conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, diabetes, sleeping problems, and even some cancers. Depression is additionally associated with CVD, diabetes, and significant weight gain or loss.

Furthermore, harmful eating patterns like too much snacking and fast food, or in contrast, strict adherence to “healthy” diets may also have adverse outcomes. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration says that disordered eating behaviors are among the most common risk factors for development of an eating disorder.

Maintaining a Balanced Relationship with Food

There are better coping mechanisms for stress than food. Consider the following strategies:

Identify Your Emotional Triggers

Is it work that causes you the most headache? Maybe it’s an unwanted health diagnosis, a difficult relationship, or financial pressure. Being aware of the source of your stress is half the battle. Healthline.com recommends starting an emotion diary to record the following when you feel compelled to eat but aren’t hungry: what was happening, how you were feeling, and any emotions you noticed.

Establish Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Dealing with Stress

Consider ways to relieve stress that don’t involve food. Exercise releases endorphins that help boost our mood. Mindfulness movements like stretches and yoga are also great for reducing stress and anxiety. Distract yourself with a hobby or creative outlet.

Practice Appetite Control and Positive Eating Habits

Practice distinguishing between the physical and emotional hunger cues mentioned earlier and evaluate what is influencing your desire to eat. If you are truly hungry, opt for a healthy choice like fruit, vegetables, nuts, or even popcorn.

Seek Support

Everyone needs a good support network, whether you are dealing with emotional eating or other personal challenges. Reach out to family and friends for encouragement and accountability. Explore group therapy or research other professional treatment options.

The Meadows Ranch Understands Emotional Eating

At The Meadows Ranch, we specialize in disordered eating, eating disorders, and related illness. We offer a unique program for women and young girls ages 11-17, tailored to meet each patient’s individual needs.

Through our bio-psycho-social-spiritual eating disorder treatment approach and clinical excellence, you can find the strength to confront your problems and learn what tools are necessary to overcome your condition.

For more information on treatment for eating disorders at The Meadows Ranch, don’t hesitate to reach out today.