We all know food doesn’t judge. Chocolate understands. Pizza comforts us when we’ve had a bad day without asking any stupid questions…. this is stress eating at its finest. The prevalence of stress eating memes shows us this is a common problem.
It’s not enough that stress prevents us from losing weight, it also can be the reason we turn to food to try and dampen and numb all those stressful, negative feelings we are experiencing.
Keep Reading to learn all about the psychology, physiology (hormones), and research behind this or, skip right to the Action Steps!
For book recommendations for binge eating and emotional eating see my post on the Best Books for Nutrition and Healthy Eating
When we talk about eating disorders in our society, we picture skeletal, starved people who restrict food and over exercise to the extreme.
Reality check: The most prevalent eating disorder in our society is actually binge eating.
Stress eating is often to blame for this. People feel stressed out and out of control and turn to food to comfort them.
They eat large amounts or foods that are considered unhealthy without balance, and they feel guilty, worthless, and even more stressed.
Read more: 25+ Quotes for Eating Disorder Recovery
Whether you struggle with bingeing and restricting or simply overeating or poor food choices when stressed, read on to discover why you’re stress eating and how to heal your relationship with food.
What is Stress Eating
Stress eating or emotional eating is a way of responding to negative emotions by turning to food. Obvious, right?
Many people who stress eat are not overweight but stress eating can contribute to weight gain and eventual obesity and the health concerns that come with it.
However, there’s more to stress eating than a risk of being overweight. A deeper concern is why you are turning to food in the first place. The root of the problem is psychological and that is where you need to focus your efforts to stop the loss of control around food.
Many people who stress eat end up feeling powerless and guilty afterwards, adding to their emotional distress.
They may follow up this loss of control by restricting their eating. Unfortunately, this can result in more stress, hormonal disruptions, and a greater change of stress eating and bingeing again.
So begins the cycle of bingeing and restricting.
How Do You Know if You Are Stress Eating?
- Eating when you’re not hungry
- Eating in response to an emotional event
- Turning to sugary and fatty foods at the end of the day
- Loss of control and eating past fullness — can lead to a full binge
How Much Food is Considered a Binge?
There is no specific amount of food that’s considered a binge.
The definition of a binge is eating an amount of food within two hours that’s much larger than a typical person would eat in that time.
Binge eating also includes:
- Eating much faster than usual
- Eating past fullness to the point of discomfort
- Eating like this when you are not hungry
- Being embarrassed about the amount you’re eating
- Feeling disgusted with yourself and ashamed of your binge
What Causes Stress Eating?
The simple answer is that stress causes stress eating. How? Because stress is insidious. It erodes our ability resist addictive substances like food. Especially the kinds of highly palatable foods that are available today.
Mind you, a normal amount of acute stress is good for us and motivates us to achieve goals —such as stress that doesn’t last long and is for a good reason such as an enjoyable work project.
However, stress that is long lasting (chronic) and makes us feel like there’s no end in site, that kind of stress, is called “wear and tear” stress by researchers.
It wears down our ability to make good decisions and to say no to unhealthy things we normally would.
These physiological changes happen in large part because of hormonal responses which we’ll cover later.
Why Do You Eat When You’re Sad?
Our bodies interpret any sort of negative emotion by responding with hormone changes. Stress is stress and it doesn’t matter what the cause is, our bodies interpret it all as a threat.
Emotional stress causing sadness such as:
- Interpersonal conflict (abuse, fighting, rejection, disapproval, shaming)
- Loss of loved ones (death, breakups, end of friendships, moving)
Foods that are high in sugars and fats actually produce a hormonal effect in our bodies that soothes these feelings of sadness and leads to stress eating. Cheese and chocolate for example increase levels of the feel-good hormones in our bodies.
Why Do You Eat When You’re Bored?
Boredom, believe it or not, is also a state of stress.
Boredom comes from feeling a lack of meaning in your life. Researchers believe that eating out of boredom is an attempt to distract ourselves from these feelings of meaninglessness.
In fact, boredom is shown in studies to directly cause the desire to snack and overeat foods that are unhealthy!
Food is More Than Fuel
We’ve all heard the old adage “calories in, calories out”. We’ve been told that’s the key to real weightloss. This is not false! However, so many people still don’t believe this, and with good reason.
Note: the following is for people who binge due to restriction from dieting and denying themselves foods they love, not for people who binge without restriction—I’ll cover that further down!)
It seems that fat loss is much easier for some people than others.
There are a LOT of variables that can determine how quickly, easily, or permanently someone is able to achieve weight loss.
Calories in vs. calories out is a far too simple way of describing the complex mechanisms that the body possesses to deal with food energy.
The body is not a bank account and you cannot “budget” calories or assume that your body will respond exactly like a calculator.
Read more: How to Increase Metabolism: Myths and Truths
Our Bodies Are Not Machines
You cut 500 calories a day from your diet. You stick to it religiously and have complete faith in the system: You will lose a pound of fat this week!
The week rolls around and you’ve gained weight.
Frustrated but determined, you buckle down and start exercising even more, you cut even more calories. Surely it will work this time! You’re doing everything right!
Once again, the week is up and the scale HASN’T EVEN BUDGED! This is starting to get to you. All that work for nothing?!
At this point, the worst thing you can do is to keep decreasing calories. Your body is not a machine with precise inputs and outputs.
You cannot math your way through fat loss.
The fuel/calorie value of a food outside of the body is not quite the same as its value inside the body. Your body is very complex in the way it will use and obtain nutrients and is not mechanical. It is situational, individual, and unique.
Why is this significant when we are discussing stress eating, bingeing and restricting?
Because it usually cycles this way.
- People want to lose weight so they restrict calories
- Feelings of hunger and stress take over and willpower recedes, you binge
- You feel guilty and stressed. So, decide to double down and restrict calories even more
- Hunger hormones increase, weight loss does not necessarily occur, you binge again (more on hormones that control appetite and hunger below)
- The cycle repeats itself
The good news is that once you understand that this cycle is unsustainable and ineffective, you can start to discover what really works and begin healing your relationship with food.
End the Scarcity Mentality To Stop Bingeing
Scarcity mindset is a mentality that causes people to obsess over the lack of something, usually money.
Recent work suggests that the experience of insufficient resources can create a “scarcity” mindset; increasing attention toward the scarce resource itself, but at the cost of attention for unrelated aspects” – PNAS, A scarcity mindset alters neural processing underlying consumer decision making
Why You Can’t Stop Thinking About Food
This also absolutely applies to food and is very common among chronic dieters, extreme carb cutters, and those that fall prey to the binge and restrict cycle.
“Not having enough of what one needs has long been shown to have detrimental consequences for decision making.
What this means, is that when you are constantly focusing on the foods you decide you cannot have, the more you will obsess over them.
Since stress erodes your ability to resist things you would otherwise, eventually, it is inevitable for most people that they will cave to their cravings when stressed and overeat or binge. Thus the cycle continues.
The Hormones Behind Stress Eating and Cravings
This could be a whole other article or five on its own, so I will try and give you the condensed version.
The endocrine system plays a vital role in how our body responds to the food we eat. Whenever we eat something, the endocrine system responds by sending out messages (hormones) that tell our body to respond in certain ways.
There are many in the GI tract that determine how full or hungry we feel, how satisfied we feel after eating, etc.
- Ghrelin: hunger hormone when food/energy intake is extremely low such as on a diet, when fasting and when restricting food. This hormone will make us feel hungry. Sometimes it will get out of control and we will feel hungry even when we think we’ve eaten plenty. This is why chronically restricting food can be detrimental to fat loss efforts.
- Peptide YY: This hormone suppresses appetite and is released after eating a meal. High protein meals cause PYY to increase the most, so eating plenty of protein is key to suppressing appetite. (check out The Ultimate Guide to Protein)
- Leptin: Regulates energy balance in the body and controls appetite. When we have plenty of body fat or eat fat, leptin is typically high. This tells our body that we are well fed and not hungry. This is why eating enough fat in our diet helps prevent feelings of hunger.
- What’s more with leptin, if we are stressed or restrict food and diet or fast, this hormone can cause us to become ravenously hungry (due to SNS activity, catecholamines, and free fatty acids causing leptin supression)
Emotional Stress Eating and Using Food To Numb
Food holds a lot of emotional value for us. It ties us to our cultures, our families, our loved ones and our own identities.
Obviously, food is so much more than fuel. It is part of who we are and how we express ourselves. The significance of this should never be trivialized.
However, things can get out of control when the emotional aspect of eating becomes a way to numb painful or difficult emotions (stress eating).
We use food to manage our moods in the short term. When we are feeling good, we can see the long term goals we have more clearly, and tend to choose healthier foods.
Take this quote from The Journal of Consumer Psychology:
“The results from four experiments show that a positive mood cues distal, abstract construal and increases the salience of long-term goals such as health, leading to greater preference for healthy foods over indulgent foods.
The results also show that a negative mood cues proximal construal and increases the salience of immediate, concrete goals such as mood management, leading to greater preference for indulgent foods over healthy foods.”
So, if this research is correct, the biggest hurdle to managing our stress eating is to manage our moods.
See these articles for more help with stress eating:
And if you want to get a grip on your health goals, grab these free planners and trackers for your workouts, activity, habits and goals!:
How To Stop Stress Eating, Bingeing and Restricting
I aim for the rest of this post to be straight forward, actionable steps for you to follow in order to break free of the cycle of stress eating, bingeing and restricting. Plus more stress eating memes 😄.
Stop Stress Eating Step One: Break the Cycle
We’ve already talked about the cycle and how it begins. The first step you can take to end the cycle is to adopt this mindset:
When you overeat, binge, or “mess up” your diet, DO NOT PUNISH YOURSELF BY RESTRICTING as this will only set you up for extreme hunger and bingeing once again.
- Limiting calories
- Limiting certain macros like carbs or fats to extremely low amounts
- Over exercising or drastically increasing exercise from your current baseline
- Thinking, you’ve blown the week/month so you may as well continue to overeat
The very best choice you can make is to go back to a normal, healthy way of eating (we will get into more detail with that soon).
This includes not picking up the newest fad diet or any other “special” way of eating that distracts you from getting to the real, nitty gritty issues of why you end up stress eating and bingeing in the first place.
Stop Stress Eating Step Two: Practice Self Acceptance
When you mess up, forgive yourself. Treat yourself like you would a good friend. As corny and strange as it might feel at first, self compassion is the best thing you can do for your mental health in this situation.
Know that you are not a failure. You are not out of control. Food is not scarce and you can eat foods you love while still maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.
You are so much more than your weight, body size, or physical appearance. Treat yourself like you would a best friend in need of comfort. Practice self care and focus on things other than numbing with food.
Stop Stress Eating Step Three: Practice Good Nutrition Habits
Focusing on creating good nutrition habits rather than controlling the quantity or specifics of your food choices will set you up for long term, sustainable health and proper weight loss and management.
As you can probably see by now, control and restriction are stress inducing mindsets that only contribute to the cycle we are trying to break. If you shift your focus to good nutrition, you will boost your mood and drastically improve your relationship with food. How do you do this?
- Care about what you eat: make mindful, deliberate choices.
- This is more important than WHAT you choose to eat.
- So long as you are being intentional and mindful, you are much more likely to balance your nutrition appropriately, even if you eat that ice cream cone.
- If you choose consciously, knowing that you will choose other healthy foods in appropriate quantities for your other meals, you do not have to stress about the fact that you ate a “bad” food (Hint: there is no such thing as “bad” food!)
- Focus on food QUALITY: when you focus on eating high quality foods, ones that provide high nutritional value, you will automatically be consuming foods in a more balanced manner that supports health and healthy weight.
- Eating nutrient dense, fresh foods will make you feel better, will help you manage stress more by controlling hunger with quality protein, carbs, and fats, and you will have more energy due to having less nutritional deficiencies.
- Your appetite control will level out because you are cutting back on hyper palatable foods that are so easy to overeat.
- You will naturally eat less, feel more satisfied and be able to eat intuitively without counting calories.
The best way we can keep our hormones balanced and on our side to prevent stress eating is to:
- Eat enough protein
- Eat enough fat
- Eat enough calories throughout the day (not so little all day that you binge at night)
- Get enough sleep
Be Kind To Yourself!
If you get anything from this article, please let this be it:
- Food should be enjoyed! Enjoy food, enjoy your life! Don’t waste so much time and energy obsessing over food.
Limit the stress in your life. Do not let food add to your stress. Food should not be a replacement for dealing with your problems. Be mindful, take care of yourself! Treat yourself like a good friend.
Take care everyone!