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Emotional Eating: What Stress Does to Our Appetite and What To Do About It

Does stress make you reach for the chocolate chip cookies? If so, you are not alone. Emotional or stress eating happens when we use food to help cope with emotions, even when we aren’t hungry. You may not even notice that it’s happening. There are reasons for this and ways to help yourself through it.

You’re stressed about an exam or impending deadline or bored, and you find yourself searching for your snack bag, opening Uber Eats or planning a trip to Cook Out. Eating the “good” foods just doesn’t cut it when you’re stress-eating.

Researchers have identified several mechanisms at play here. Hormones we release when stressed, along with sugary and high fat “comfort foods,” pave the way for overeating. Adrenalin, released in sudden stressful situations, will decrease our appetite. But chronic stress brings on an interplay of hormones that can result in going overboard with food. These include cortisol, which can increase cravings for sugary, salty and fatty foods. So, when you feel stressed and reach for those chocolate chip cookies, you’re not weak. You may be responding naturally to your body’s signals. This doesn’t make the aftereffects any easier to handle. Researchers have found that women tend to experience emotional eating more often than men, and women tend to feel worse about it afterward with feelings of guilt. Studies include those on female college students relating stress levels to overeating, negative body image and feelings of guilt.

On the other hand, some people under eat when they feel stressed. When it comes to you individually, you are the one that knows your habits, and you have the answers to correcting your path. I’ve had several people come to see me after losing an alarming amount of weight related to an emotional loss or increased stress. And several who began restricting food to lose a few pounds and then found it difficult to change course once the weight was lost. These are also cases of emotional eating habits that have a deleterious effect on health.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having comfort food every so often to help through these times or to celebrate successes. However, if eating becomes the only coping mechanism, we aren’t addressing the root cause of the feelings triggering emotional eating. Unbalanced eating could potentially induce more harm to our physical and emotional health long-term versus providing short-term comfort.

Taking Control of Emotional Eating

Slowing down and paying more attention to yourself and what you eat can bring you into a more balanced state whether you tend to overeat, under eat or make questionable food choices.

Listen to your body and know your cues for hunger, need for sleep and need for self-care. .

Know your body’s hunger cues. When it’s time to eat, how does your body let you know? Does your stomach growl at you? Do you get spacey or irritable? Have trouble concentrating? When you find yourself reaching for a snack soon after a meal, ask yourself why? Tune in to what your body is really after. Maybe the meal just wasn’t enough. Was something missing? Are you hungry, or are you reaching for another reason?

Hunger vs. tired or stressed. Need for sleep and feeling stressed can also make us irritable and unable to concentrate. The answer to what your body needs may be found in how you’ve been spending your day/days. No matter what you feel you can do, how hard you can push yourself, the body still needs sleep … regularly, 7-9 hours worth, and adequate food and water. Life balance comes into play here.

Eat regularly. College life brings an entirely new routine, including choosing your mealtimes. Have you skipped a meal? Has it been three hours or more since your last meal or snack? If so, you may need more than a snack. It’s time to head to the Commons or the kitchen and get yourself a balanced plate. But, if you answer no to those questions, ask yourself if you’re really hungry or do you feel anxious, stressed, etc.

Skipping meals is stressful for the body and can cause a lack of concentration. If you haven’t eaten in four-five and still don’t feel hungry, check-in again. Grab a snack, a meal or make a plan to eat very soon.

Get to know your best personal eating pattern. Beyond vegan, keto and flexitarian eating styles, consider things like the time of day you most often feel hungry and what foods you tend to eat. If you always get hungry at a particular time of day, make that a mealtime if possible. If not, be sure to have a snack available.

Make the desirable stuff easy to reach. If you fill your cabinets with junk food, you’ll eat mostly junk food; we tend to do what’s convenient. Any food is okay to eat as long as overall your diet is well balanced and meets your nutrient needs. Instead of looking at foods as good or bad, consider how often to eat a particular food. Potato chips are great, but they aren’t dinner. We all have desserts and snacks that we love. If consumed often enough to push nutrient-rich foods off your plate, trouble may follow. Everyday foods give us the nutrients we need – fresh fruit; vegetables; whole grains; healthy fats like nuts, avocado and olives; and proteins. Versions of these foods fit in a desk, dorm room, backpack or snack drawer. Pick the ones that work for you. There is no sense in having food around you think you “should” eat but don’t want to. There is no benefit to eating that Moon Pie that your best friend’s sister gave you just because it’s there, even though you don’t really like Moon Pies. If it doesn’t speak to you, in a good way, give it away. The Food for the Flock Food Pantry is in the Commons near the SU Bookstore. Drop off what you don’t want and pick up what you need.

Practice mindful eating. Savor your food; enjoy its taste, texture and aroma. We often eat without really experiencing the food itself. Distractions can come from being happily distracted at a party or feeling stressed by deadlines. Avoid electronics while eating; these take our mind off our food and may contribute to overeating. If you don’t turn electronics off, move your focus to your plate when taking a bite of food. Mindful eating brings you in contact with yourself and may bring awareness to how various foods affect you.

Create a calm atmosphere. Avoid stressful conversations when eating. Take a few deep breaths before starting to eat; this will help you relax and bring you into the present moment. Join friends for a shared meal and relaxing conversation.

Give your body time to register the meal. Slow down when eating and wait for 10 minutes before going in for a plate refill. It takes the stomach time to let the brain know it’s full.

Drink adequate water. Being even slightly dehydrated can reduce our ability to focus and cause irritability. Start your day with a glass of water and be sure to carry more with you during the day. Take advantage of the water bottle filling stations around campus.

How to Relieve Stress Without Overeating

Pay attention to your eating habits. Do certain people or events compel you to eat when you are not hungry? Do you avoid eating in certain circumstances?

  • Do you eat or avoid food when angry, depressed, bored or otherwise upset?
  • Do you eat or avoid eating in response to certain people or circumstances?
  • Do certain places or times bring on the urge to eat even if you are not hungry?

Get to know your habits. You may continue to do the same thing, but you’ll understand why.

Develop coping skills. The next time you find yourself reaching for food out of boredom, stress or uncomfortable emotion, try turning to an enjoyable activity instead.

  • Get active – walk, jog, ride a bike, go to the gym, call a friend to join you. Exercise is known to produce endorphins and be a stress buster. Stand up from your workspace and do some lunges, desk push-ups or anything to get that blood flowing!
  • Phone a friend or family member. Talk it out or talk about something completely different. Social contacts support mental health.
  • Do an enjoyable activity – a hobby, puzzle or game, or read for fun.
  • Try a relaxing yoga or tai chi class. These can combine the benefits of both exercise and meditation.
  • Check out a mindfulness or meditation app or class. Links are below.
  • Be aware of sleeping habits; adequate sleep is a must.

Know When To Ask For Helpp

Talk to your health care provider if you believe your emotional eating is interfering with other areas of your life, especially if you show symptoms of an eating disorder including:

  • You often lose control of your eating.
  • You eat to the point of discomfort.
  • You make yourself vomit after eating.
  • You have lost or gained significant weight or are told you are underweight.
  • You have intense negative feelings, such as shame, about your body or your eating.
  • You have food rules or refuse to eat certain foods such as carbs or fat.
  • You frequently skip meals.
  • You exercise excessively.
  • Preoccupation with food, counting calories, dieting, etc.

Meditation links and more

For questions or to schedule an individual session contact Terry Passano RDN, FMN, CLT University Dietitian,