Stress Eating and How to Overcome It

Eating for Comfort

According to new data from the American Psychological Association 38% of American Adults report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress within the last month. 49% of those Americans report stress eating at least once a week or more! In those situations, the comfort food we typically grab is fatty fried foods, high starch foods, carbohydrate-loaded sweets, and anything that gives us that temporary “buzz” or “calm” sensation we experience from highjacking our digestive system. While occasional stress eating isn’t enough to throw a regular diet off the rails, that bi-weekly binging or once-a-week cheat can really undermine all the success we’ve previously achieved.

Stress Can Be Overwhelming

What are we stressed about? As it turns out, everything! A 2021 survey conducted by ValuePenguinfound that Americans worry about:

    • Money—At 22%, it’s the top stressor for all adults in America today
    • Work
    • Health

Historical studies looking at stress have found that some issues just don’t go away. For example, when you drill down past the top three stressors in our lives, you find the following in some order for as far back as 2007!

  • Crime
  • Violence
  • Politics
  • Even our country’s future

These “significant stressors” are the things that keep us up at night, distract us while we’re working, and worry us to the point of no return. But unfortunately, it is very difficult to escape them.

Why Do We Turn to Food in Times of Stress?

That’s not an easy question to answer. A recent article in TIME Health addressed the topic and revealed some surprisingly powerful motivators behind common stress eating.

Chemical Warfare

Dr. Allison Knott, a registered dietician, says that the body’s natural levels of a hormone called cortisol are dramatically elevated when the mind is stressed. That hormone triggers our natural hunger response—even when our stomachs are full. If we’re not aware of this false mental signal, we’ll eat, assuming that we are actually hungry. Hormonal triggers are impossible to control and combating them requires tremendous willpower, forethought, and creative thinking.

Absent Distraction

Food can also be a mental distraction—allowing us to stop concentrating on the things that are stressing us out. People who eat for this reason are using food the same way others use alcohol, sex, and television, according to nutritional psychologist Amanda Baten. Food becomes an escape and eating allows us to “turn our brains off”, if only for a short time.

An Unhealthy High

Food can even give certain people very real chemical responses—similar to those one might experience while using drugs and/or alcohol. Baten notes that when we eat carbohydrates like sugar, our bodies actually release dopamine (the feel-good hormone) into our bloodstream. That hormone triggers the same neurological reaction in our brains as certain drugs (like heroin or cocaine).

How to Overcome Stress Eating

5 Tips to Help You Stop Stress Eating

The best way to stop stress eating is to learn the signs and recognize the behavior. Only after you’ve realized what you’re doing can you mindfully change your habits. That can be an extremely hard thing to do, especially if you’ve been stress eating for a long time. But when you put your mind to it, you really can stop yourself from this detrimental behavior.

1. How to Know When You’re Actually Hungry

True hunger is almost always accompanied by actual physical symptoms. These include:

  • Growling stomach
  • Low energy levels
  • Headache
  • Yawning

If you assume you’re hungry and begin eating without any of these common hunger symptoms, you’re likely not hungry at all.

2. Water is Your Friend

An easy way to tell if you’re confusing “stress hunger” with true hunger is to drink an entire glass of water when you feel the urge to eat. People have been scientifically shown to confuse the symptoms of thirst with hunger. Plus, the water will actually help give you that full feeling you’re looking for without the empty calories.

3. Find a New Distraction

If you use food as a mindless distraction, it’s time to find a new hobby. Experts at Harvard University suggest exercise, calling a friend, meditation, or simply stepping outside for some fresh air as an alternative activity to eating.

4. Food for Food’s Sake

Learn to disassociate food with your leisure time activities like watching television. Can’t break the habit? Opt for healthier options instead. Low-calorie fruits, fresh veggies, and foods high in fiber (like delicious chocolate chip Hollywood Diet® Cookies) give you the ability to eat when you want without feeling guilty (or adding on extra pounds).

5. Mindful Eating isn’t a New Age Fad

Researchers from North Carolina State that studied healthy eating, weight loss, and overall wellbeing found that if you include mindfulness in your eating habits, you’re much more likely to lose weight and live an objectively healthier life. Essentially this Zen-based practice is designed to help you:

  • Get the most enjoyment possible from your food
  • Learn to see food as fuel, not a source of comfort
  • Be “present” every time you eat
  • Experience your food fully

One of the basic tenants of Mindful Eating is to use all your senses to experience the food you’re eating. This inherently causes you to focus on your food and naturally eliminates distractions that may keep you from overeating.

But sometimes overeating isn’t about being stressed. Check out these 4 easy ways to overcome overeating or recover after an unhealthy binge.