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Stress Eating, Bingeing and Restricting: Why You Do It and How to Stop

junk food woman about to eat

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.

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.

The high availability of hyper-palatable, delicious foods makes this extremely tempting and easy to do. Especially if we are stressed and tired.

Keep Reading to learn all about the psychology, physiology (hormones), and research behind this or, skip right to the Action Steps!

two moods stress 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. 

While classical binge eating disorder is severe, and technically is not followed by compensatory behaviour such as purging or fasting, the binge and restrict cycle is also extremely common.

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.

binge and restrict cycle for stress eating
Many people engage in binge eating but do not meet criteria for BED or Bulimia. Instead, they find themselves stuck in a cycle of bingeing and restricting, often unsure of how to stop the cycle and get the help they deserve. Graphic courtesy of Meda.

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.

(Related: Are You Too Stressed To Lose Weight? Why You Could Be and How to Fix It)

Food is More Than Fuel

oreo ice cream stress eating large scoop

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. 

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

calories in vs. calories out
Flawed logic. The body is not a bank account. You can't zero sum budget it.

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?!

Wrong.

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 End Stress Eating and Binge eating

sugar and carb funny photo

Scarcity mindset is a mentality that causes people to obsess over the lack of something, usually money.

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.

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

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 willpower is a finite resource, 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

stress eating meme

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)

(Related: How to Stop Ruminating and Anxiety in Its Tracks)

Emotional Stress Eating and Using Food To Numb

numbing emotions stress eating brene brown quote
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Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
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Daring Greatly
Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice Audible Audiobook
The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection
Men, Women and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough
The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Daring Greatly

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:

9 Unique Ways You Can Stop Ruminating and Anxiety in Its Tracks

Self Care: Practices to Reduce Stress, Accomplish Goals and Benefit Mind & Body

Are You Too Stressed To Lose Weight? Why You Could Be and How to Fix It

7 Ted Talks that Spark Confidence and Self Love to Radically Transform Your Life

13 Ways You Can Clean Up Your Diet Today

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

diet meme

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.

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.

This includes:

  • Limiting calories
  • Limiting certain macros like carbs or fats to extremely low amounts
  • Over exercising or drastically increasing exercise from your current baseline
  • Fasting
  • 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

winnie the pooh self acceptance meme

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. 

Let That Sh*t Go!
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Let That Sh*t Go!
F*ck Perfect Bracelet
Affirmators! 50 Affirmation Cards to Help You Help Yourself – without the Self-Helpy-Ness!
Way of Will Soul Soak Bath Soak Set
Self Care Throw Blanket
Good Things Take Time: Self Care Journal for Women
Keeping it Together 2019: A Self-Care Planner
The Miracle Morning
Life Is Tough But So Are You: Mood Calendar & Self Care Planner For Depression, Anxiety and Anger Management
Types of self-care

(Related: 5 Body Flaws That Are Actually Totally Normal)

Check out the video below for 101 Things You Can Do Instead of Binge Eating and try this DIY Face Mask for some de-stressing and self care.

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!)
ice cream from ca lem montreal
Treating my daughters to ice cream is a special event that I wouldn't sacrifice (or stress about!)
  • 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.
Check out some of my healthy recipes!

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! 

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stress eating pin with fast food
stress eating pin donut
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Samia Ahmed
Guest

Thanks, Rachel. I love the way how you just gave a solution for stress eating. I am going to try these solutions for sure. I always feel stressed about my job, study, relationship. Whenever I feel stressed, I just start to eat junk food 😢

Emily
Guest

Love this! You described me to a T when talking about the binge and restrict cycle. I’ve been trying to come up with a way to break the cycle, and I think I’ve found it! Thanks for the amazing tips!

Jill
Guest
Jill

You are spot on when it comes to the scarcity mentality. Anytime I’ve tried to restrict a certain type of food in my diet, I’ve always ended up craving it and wanting more of it! I’ve learned over the years that balance is the key. Since I’ve started being more mindful and letting go of these crazy ideas that carbs are bad or I have to follow a regimented meal plan, I have learned how to listen to my body and provide it with the food it needs.

Jennifer Morrison
Guest

Mindful eating is so key to healthy eating. I think it is so difficult to run the balance of mindful eating, and not forced over or under eating.

Robin
Guest

This is such a wonderful article – I absolutely love how you dive into the psychology and physiology of this topic, which is sadly so rare in our discussion of healthy eating! It pains me when I see people around me making dramatic, unsustainable changes in their diets to try to lose weight. I try to live by the mantra, “Only eat what’s good for the body or the soul.” Most of the time, I try to pack as many nutrients and as much protein into my meals as I can – while ensuring that it’s food that I truly… Read more »

Jennifer Enoch
Guest

In the past year I’ve made an effort to stick to a healthier way of eating. Every now and then I eat something that’s not in line with that…and I’m OK with it! I remind myself how great I feel when my body is functioning properly. You’ve provided such great inf here, a true message of balance and knowing your body.

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