How to Stop Emotional Eating From Stress

Woman stress eating a donut at her desk
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As anyone who’s watching their weight will tell you that hunger is just one of many reasons that people eat. Those with a tendency toward emotional eating are especially vulnerable to making poor diet choices. If you’re an emotional eater, you may find yourself eating to deal with uncomfortable emotions, using food as a reward when you’re happy, and craving sweets or unhealthy snacks when stressed. Don’t worry—you’re not alone! The following ideas can help you to cut down emotional eating and develop healthier eating habits, even when you're stressed.

Awareness Is Key

Awareness can be the most powerful aspect of change. Becoming more aware of how emotional eating plays out for you is the first step.

Emotional eating is sometimes called "mindless eating" because we often don't think about what we're doing and let our unconscious habits or drives take over.

A mindful approach to eating can be helpful, but before you can put it into practice, you should become aware of how you feel right before you eat.

The trick is to be more aware of why you're eating when you eat. One way to check in with yourself is to maintain a food journal, either in physical journal form or as an app you can install on your phone. If you have to log what you eat right before you eat it, you may realize you're eating for the wrong reasons, and can then move onto another approach to deal with your feelings. Once you break the habit of mindlessly reaching for food, it becomes easier to put the next list of techniques into place.

Find Relaxation Techniques

When you’re under stress, your body is likely producing higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that tends to make people crave sweet and salty food—the stuff that’s generally not good for us. If you’re experiencing stress on a regular basis and aren’t finding ways to relax your body relatively quickly, cortisol could be creating these cravings, as well as contributing to other health problems. The following stress relievers for busy people can help, you can create a simple stress management plan, or you can find stress relievers that fit with your specific situation.

Cope in Healthy Ways

Many people use food to deal with uncomfortable emotions like anger, frustration, and fear. While we need food for survival, there are healthier ways to cope with emotions:

  • Talking to a friend: Social support can go a long way toward helping you process your feelings, gain support if needed, and move on.
  • Journaling: Processing one’s feelings in a journal have been found to have many health benefits beyond mere stress management. When you feel like reaching for unhealthy food, reach for a pen instead.
  • Exercise: Getting your body moving is a great way to blow off steam and get your endorphins going, and is a much healthier option than overeating.

Face Your Problems

If you’re using food to muffle your feelings in a difficult relationship, try assertiveness instead. If food is your only treat at a job you hate, try techniques for finding satisfaction at your job, or get a different one. If you look to solution-based coping mechanisms to cut down on the stress in your life, you won’t need food to help you cope.

Use Mindfulness Exercises

Many people have successfully staved off cravings or greatly reduced the amount of "stress" food they eat by practicing mindful eating. 

Mindfulness, the act of being present and aware, can help people get out of the habit of acting on their cravings without thinking.

 Mindfulness exercises are simple to learn and wonderful for promoting resilience to stress in general, so you really can't lose.

Try Healthy Alternatives

If these techniques don’t completely eliminate your emotional eating urges, go ahead and indulge—but use healthier fare. Drink Perrier instead of soda; munch on veggies or healthy snacks instead of chips; savor one small piece of dark chocolate instead of binging on a whole chocolate muffin from the coffee shop. All of these things can be good for you, so you’ll still come out ahead without feeling completely deprived.

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