Signs You Could Be Emotionally Eating And How to Stop It

Almost everyone has been there: A stressful day at work, a bad breakup, or some other mood-ruining event occurs, and we immediately pick up takeout or some ice cream to indulge our taste buds and help ourselves feel better. It’s called emotional eating (or stress eating), and it’s common. But how can you tell if your emotional eating has become a real problem? Here’s what could be causing it, how to tell if it’s becoming a serious issue, and how to stop it.

We respond to stressful or difficult situations with comfort food — and there’s a reason

A woman eating pizza at an outdoor restaurant.

Emotional eating can lead to major weight gain. | m-imagephotography/iStock/Getty Images

It’s called comfort food for a reason. Those high-calorie, low-nutrition foods we stuff our faces with are there to comfort us when we’ve had a bad day. And for some of us, even the slightest inconvenience can lead to a bad day, which means we’re more likely to head home and watch Netflix while eating ice cream instead of heading to the gym and grabbing a healthy meal afterward.

But there’s actually a biological reason for why we turn to food to make us feel better. It’s because when we’re stressed for a prolonged period of time, our adrenal glands start releasing cortisol. It increases our appetite, making us hungry even if we’re physically not hungry. So when we’re under a lot of stress, we feel the urge to eat, even if our bodies don’t actually need us to.

Plus, Business Insider reported that a lack of sleep can cause unwanted emotional eating. And when we’re under a lot of stress — whether it’s worrying about a big presentation at work or freaking out over a final exam in a few days — we tend to literally lose sleep over it. Sleep loss increases the appetite, so we’re more likely to munch on unhealthy foods throughout the day instead of sticking to our usual food routine.

But it becomes a problem when we do it unconsciously or become dependent on it

Most of the time, people notice when they’ve been stress eating. They might say to a friend, “I’ve been so worried about this presentation that I haven’t stopped eating junk food all week.” Normally, when the stressful situation relaxes, we feel better and can get back to our normal eating habits. But eating with our emotions becomes a problem when we start to do it unconsciously. If a traumatic event in our lives occurs, such as losing a job or even losing a loved one, we might stress eat to take away that constant anxious feeling. But eventually, it becomes unconscious, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And that’s what leads to health problems such as weight gain, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and more.

The more we stress eat, the more we depend on it to help us feel better. Eating sugar has been shown to reduce our body’s cortisol response, which means our brain becomes fixed on these foods to help us feel better instead of relying on its own hormonal balance. And when our mental or physical health become jeopardized, emotional eating has become a serious problem.   

There are ways to curb the stress eating before it has a chance to take a serious toll

Emotional eating can become a big problem, but there are ways it can be controlled before it gets to that point.

  • It starts with managing your stress

Stress is the main cause of emotional eating. Getting a handle on it can prevent the stress eating before it even starts. When you feel like the stress or anxiety is mounting, take a few deep breaths or try the 4-7-8 technique: Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds. Repeat that a few times, then remind yourself that nothing will come at you today that you can’t handle. You get stressed because you worry you can’t handle the situation — but in the end, you always can.

  • Translate that stress hunger into a stress workout

If you can find another way to help yourself feel better, your body won’t become dependent on food. Try going for a jog or taking a spin class. If it helps you sweat out the stress, you’ll feel better and your brain won’t need those sugary foods to help cope. One tip: Don’t curb the stress hunger with anything equally damaging, like smoking or drinking. If you don’t want to join a gym, take a walk with a friend instead.

  • When you want something sugary or high-calorie, make sure it’s healthy

If you’re entering a stressful situation, make a list of foods you can eat whenever you feel hungry. Popcorn, avocado toast, and dark chocolate are three easy snacks that have some awesome health benefits. If you’re dying for mozzarella sticks after a long day, order them along with a salad for dinner. You shouldn’t deny yourself delicious foods, but remaining aware of what you’re eating is the best way to prevent yourself from developing an emotional eating problem.

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