We have all been there. Stress with work, our financial situation, our relationships, or even other drivers on the road. We’re done, we’ve had enough, and now we are going to get ice cream, or cookies, or any kind of sweet we can think of. Stressed spelled backwards is desserts, after all.
Work is a huge stress factor for me. One of the things that helps is working on my blog. It makes time go by faster, I don’t get nearly as frustrated as I used to, and it gives me something that I look forward to when I don’t want to go to work in the mornings. Find out more about what I use to help blog here.
However, what is stress eating and what are the causes of it? Can we stop stress eating because it’s not good for our wallet or our waistlines. All of this and more down below.
Did you know that 40% of people eat more when stressed? Another 40% eat less when stressed and 20% of people experience no change to eating habits when stressed. Which are you?
Stress Eating or Emotional Eating: Different or the Same?
Stress eating and emotional eating can be used interchangeably, so they happen to have the same connotations as each other. A simple definition for them is making yourself feel better by using food. You happen to satisfy emotional needs and triggers rather than physical hunger.
I just want to state that it is normal to emotionally eat. Why? The reason is simple, it works. When eating a relaxation response takes place called the “rest and digest” response. Our bodies digest food the best when we’re calm, so when we eat we shift into a relaxed state. However, there are more connotations than just that. Keep reading if you want to learn more.
There are plenty of different ways of coping with our emotions, but the occasional reward or pick me up isn’t a problem, as long as it’s occasional. What defines an emotional eater? Here are a few questions. If you can answer yes to more than you say no to, then it might be something to look into.
- Do you eat more when you feel stressed?
- Do your rewards mostly revolve around food?
- Are you feeling out of control or powerless when food is involved?
- Do you eat when you know you aren’t hungry?
- Does food make you feel safe?
- Do you eat to feel better when you are anxious or bored?
- Do you eat until you’re stuffed on a regular basis?
Media and Food
The next time you watch television or see an ad for food take a look and actually dissect it a bit. Most marketers who try to sell you food related products will tie in an emotional response in their marketing.
Take Marie Callender’s pot pies or homemade turkey dinner. These ads that play about this type of food will say something along the lines of, “just like grandma used to make it”. This, in turn, will prompt an emotional response as you think of your grandma and what she used to make for you.
It makes you want to go and buy this product even more since your emotions are now involved. This can cause a stress reactor in you. After all, stress is just a specific response of the body reacting to stimuli. Being frustrated is a type of stress, but so is arousal.
Emotional/Stress Eating Triggers
There are many emotional or stress eating triggers out there. Identifying which are personal triggers for you can be very helpful so you know exactly how you’ll react. After all, you can’t change the outcome if you don’t know what’s causing unwanted behavior.
1. Stuffing/Silencing Emotions
- This is used when a particular emotion is trying to get our attention and instead of letting it have its say we eat to make it go away. We essentially numb ourselves with food. Much like a pot about to boil over, this can only work for so long. It’s also very unhealthy to keep emotions bottled inside.
- This one is pretty simple. It’s eating to have something to do or to try to fill a void inside.
- I know this is something that I do when I’m bored. My work week at my day job runs Thursday thru Saturday. I alternately love and hate that the last day of the work week falls on a day when nothing is going on. Everyone is bored, and I tend to take breaks from my post. This leads me to randomly eating throughout the day whether I’m actually hungry or not.
3. Childhood Habits
- This could be anything from nostalgia, to parents chronically rewarding children with food, and even certain childhood trauma. Abuse is something that unfortunately happens to children and can lead to long term effects if not helped in the correct way.
- I wouldn’t say I’ve been traumatized, but then maybe that’s what everyone says, but when I was a child living in South Carolina I learned that food was not always going to be available. You can read more of that story here, but safe to say that I learned to “horde” food in my stomach.
4. Social Influence
- This can certainly lead to overindulgence as it can promote a “They’re eating so I can too” mentality that group or social settings can create. The holidays and family get together’s are great examples.
- Stress, in particular distress, produces a hormone called cortisol. This hormone triggers salty, sweet, and fried food cravings.
- I have an unhealthy connection with food. It is my coping mechanism for a lot of stressful situations. Even going into a grocery store when I’m stressed or worried and to the point of even buying food that I don’t need calms me and makes me feel in control of my life again.
Alternatives to Food
The reason that most people emotionally eat is to make ourselves feel better, so, in order to reduce or stop emotionally eating you must fulfill your emotional needs. Know your triggers, while a great start, isn’t enough, just as understanding the cycle of emotional eating.
An important thing to remember is that when we emotionally eat, for a brief period, we feel pleasure, even if it is just the pleasure of having our emotional state assuaged. From this we learn that pleasure should be a priority in our lives in all ways, not just ways to feel good while eating.
If you feel lonely or depressed sometimes talking to someone who understands or cares can be very helpful. Play with a pet: either your own, a family or friend’s, or even a neighbor’s pet. Sometimes looking at a favorite photo will help or watching your favorite funny video, which is mine, to help get my mind off things.
Feeling anxious is one of my things. I don’t do well with new and strange social situations. Dancing to your favorite song will help, taking a brisk walk, or even meditating.
Sometimes when we get home we’re just so exhausted that the thought of cooking can make us break down into tears. Take a deep breath and make yourself a cup or tea or drink some warm milk. Unwind with a bath or hot shower. Curl up in a warm blanket. Basically surround yourself with the comforts of home.
Plain boredom can derail a diet, or a plan to eat healthy faster than anything. Basically you need to stay busy. Read a book, find something to laugh at, go outside and wander around, explore, or do any activity you enjoy. Remember to do something that brings you pleasure.
Mindful eating is a burgeoning and continued awareness of your eating habits. What, when, how often, and how much you eat. This is something that I’ve just started and I’ve found that it takes some serious concentration. It also slows me down so I’m more aware of that full point.
This allows a pause or break for contemplation between your triggers and how you react to them. Most emotional/stress eaters feel powerless when their cravings hit. They tend to be overpowered by how much they want a particular item.
So, the first thing to do is to take 5, or even start with 1. Take a minute before you give in. Emotional eating can become automatic and certainly mindless, so before you know it you’ve eaten half a bag of chips or half a pint of ice cream. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t have it since making it forbidden can make it even more tempting.
So take a minute, check in with yourself and your emotional state while you wait. Even if you do end up eating this is the start of being able to make better decisions for yourself in the future. Slowly build that minute up to 5 and give yourself a chance.
It is also better to be truthful with how you feel. Honesty is the best policy and acknowledging your emotions, even the unpleasant ones. You’ll be surprised at how these negative feelings will lose their ability to control out lives.
So, out of all of this, where do we start? At the beginning of course. We start all the way at planning the grocery list. Keep it healthy and avoid the junk. Try to shop mostly in the produce section where all the good stuff for you are kept. If not, then frozen fruits and vegetables are better than chips, cookies, and ice cream.
Something to also keep in mind is don’t skip meals as being super hungry can trigger the response to fill the void first, as quickly as possible, which leads to overeating. The same thing applies when people say to start with small portions. I make a caveat on that when it comes to dark leafy greens. You can never have enough of those, just don’t drown it in dressing
Take a moment to just breathe it in. Notice the colors, the smells, even the noises if your food is making any. This also means give gratitude to the people who helped bring this food to you: farmers, grocery associates, the cooks, and even yourself since you’re giving your body exactly what it needs. Especially if you cooked it. Give yourself some love!
The last thing I can bring to you is to take small bites, chew thoroughly, and eat slowly. You want to enjoy the flavors completely and make it an experience to savor, instead of just rushing through it. Also, the smaller bites and chewing allows your saliva to start breaking down food before it gets to your stomach and that leads to better nutrient absorption.
Emotional eating is normal, but left unchecked can become something that you might not be able to stop. The 3 “How’s” of emotional eating are something that I have recently come across, but feel they are important to keep in mind.
1. How else are we coping with difficult emotions besides using food?
2. How much do we eat?
3. Lastly, how often do we use food as a coping strategy?
When we don’t pay attention to our bodies and our emotions and thus continue to eat we lose sight of these 3 questions. Then the cycle to a serious problem starts.
Emotional eating + Not paying attention = emotional overeating.
Emotional overeating + Time + Not getting help = Binge Eating Disorder
I will be talking about Binge Eating Disorder, or BED next time. Should you feel that you are on this cycle or that you need help please speak up. You can talk to a doctor, since I’m not one, or to a close friend or family member, but the doctor is the one that can definitely help you the most.
Did you find this post helpful? Can you relate? If you can, then please post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.