Stress Eating: Why We Do It and How to Stop

Raise your hand if you’re part of the Clean Plate Club…

11.08.16
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I am an expert stress eater. I munch on something when I’m bored, when I watch TV, when I’m worried about work, and then I snack some more when I feel bad about having snacked too much. There’s a paradox that bothers me about my tendency to stress eat: I’m otherwise pretty health conscious. I try to work out every day, and I force myself to make healthy food choices. But I often eat even though I’m not actually hungry.

I can tell that some of you are probably already thinking: well, I don’t have a problem with my weight, so I don’t have an issue with stress eating. Maybe some of you aren’t even aware that you engage in stress eating at all; I wasn’t, until I started researching this article. Consider this: as many as half of Americans eat to manage stress. Simply being thin doesn’t mean that you don’t turn to food for emotional comfort; if you’ve ever reached for your favorite ice cream for solace after a bad day, well, stressed spelled backwards is desserts. I’ve been there, too.

What is Stress Eating, Anyway?

Stress eating — also called emotional eating, or mindless eating — is really common. The feeling of hunger is part psychological, part physiological. Physiological hunger is what you feel when your body needs food for fuel. Psychological hunger, also called hedonic hunger, is when we eat for pleasure.  It’s your body and mind’s way of pacifying, through food, whatever feelings are causing you distress. This often takes the form of “comfort food” high in sugar, carbs and fat.

Why do we eat when we’re not hungry? And why do the stress, guilt, sadness or boredom signals that our brains send get interpreted as hunger?

I looked into this and was surprised at how many connections I could make to my own everyday life. Stress eating is often conditioned by your own personal relationship with food, which goes back to early childhood.

Growing up, my parents subscribed to the clean plate club. Even when I couldn’t eat any longer, I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until my plate was empty. My parents had what experts call a unit bias; people tend to see the amount of food they are served (a bag of chips, two scoops of rice) as the ideal — of course it isn’t, it’s often totally random — but they still feel that they need to finish it. To this day, I have to actively fight the unhealthy compulsion to finish everything on my plate.

This is particularly an issue when it comes to snacks, because I try to eat often throughout the day rather than have three big meals. Snack portion sizes have grown by 60% since the 1970s. It doesn’t help that nutrition information is often just for “one serving” of food, which is very seldom what you actually consume.

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How Our Brains Are Fooled

A really nifty study looked into how larger portions “trick” us into overeating, measuring satiety (hunger or satisfaction) in people who were given either a small serving of a snack or a big serving. Researchers found that participants given large servings ended up eating 77% more food, but they weren’t more satisfied than the people who got the small portions. That means physiological hunger and psychological hunger aren’t on the same page. We don’t necessarily stop eating when our stomachs are full, but rather when our brains tell us to.

I also found that I often tend to look at food as a reward system: I had a really tough day, I should treat myself to some ______. Or, since I ate so well during the day, I can “afford” to have some ______. This way of thinking is closely related to a phenomenon called ego depletion. Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s research shows that our willpower is finite. The more we use it throughout the day, the worse we become at fending off temptation. This explains why I start the morning off with the best intentions, but find myself in a chocolate frenzy by the end of the day.

Unfortunately, the opportunities to “cave in” when it comes to food are immense. The average person makes around 200 decisions related to food every day and our environment has a huge impact on how we make these decisions. We are more likely to consume foods that are accessible, for instance. If you have fruit in your kitchen but you have to go to the grocery store to buy an unhealthy snack, studies show that you’re more likely to eat the fruit. How food is plated matters, too: we’re likely to eat less when our food is in a smaller dish. This is actually an optical illusion — the amount of food is the same, but your brain thinks it’s more when the plate itself is smaller.

Why Eating Is Spurred By Stress

Finally, I realized that I eat poorly when I feel critical of myself and my choices. I often think: well, I’ve already made an unhealthy choice today, what difference does it make if I have another _______? This is an example of a cognitive distortion; my brain starts thinking of a “diet” as all-or-nothing. I’m either all good and I follow the rules perfectly, or I throw the rulebook out the window completely and allow myself to indulge. The reality, of course, is quite different: I’d much rather have to work off one serving of cheese and wine than two or three.

All of these examples point to one very important conclusion: hunger is just as psychological as it is physical. It’s when the wires get crossed that we start to eat even though we’re not hungry. But, if it’s any consolation, you’re not imagining that feeling of betterment you get while eating. Chemically speaking, eating “comfort foods” does create dopamine, which stimulates the pleasure and reward centers of your brain.

The good news is that there are other things that you could do to stimulate dopamine production instead of eating. Bathing, exercising, meditating and sexual activity have all been shown to activate your brain’s pleasure center. However, these alternatives are only powerful insofar as people choose them.

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Okay, I’m Ready to Stop

I reached out Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design and co-author in many of the studies mentioned above, about this dilemma: how can we make ourselves choose healthier alternatives? His answer? Simple: “One way is to make it less of an option to [stress eat]. And you can make it less easy if you don’t have the snacks visible; have them in a cupboard that’s hard to get to. We have that cupboard in our laundry room.”

And if that doesn’t work? What if you’re like me, and you can’t stop thinking about that delicious bar of chocolate until there’s nothing left of it but a shriveled crumple of aluminum foil? “It’s also helpful to manage your mood a little bit better,” says Dr. Wansink. “A very small change in mood can shift how much people eat [significantly]. Simply reminding yourself of something that happened that day that you’re grateful for is enough.”

What it all comes down to is knowing the way your mind works and using this insight to make it easy for yourself to make the right choices. If you know that boredom or stress makes you reach for a bag of chips, don’t buy chips. If you end up buying unhealthy items at the end of a really stressful day, try to shop only on the weekends. If you tend to eat everything in front of you, put out smaller portions, and use smaller plates.

If you remember none of the above, at least try to hold on to this: for so many of us, myself definitely included, healthy eating is a learned behavior, not a natural skill. As such, it needs practice and dedication, and that’s where effective habits come in. So be kind to yourself when you have a slip up, be aware of your limitations when it comes to food and do treat yourself once in a while. Remember what Julia Child said, “everything in moderation…including moderation.”

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • I’m such a stress eater, definitely going to try out some of these tips and put the biscuits out of reach

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • Aydan

    I avoided the left over deep dish pizza in the fridge this morning at work and opted instead for a shake — self control, man. Because let me tell you, moving DOES encourage stress eating and my skin has gone all sorts of wonky with all my eating/drinking pre-move!

    • Natty

      where are you moving? i am moving too (to NYC)… and also juggling two full time jobs… approaching breaking point! halp

      • Aydan

        Seattle –> NYC, but ultimately crashing at my friends places until I snatch a place (looking at a million this weekend — aka stress levels are through the roof!!!)

  • Iva Quint

    Thank you so much for this! Stress eating is horrible esp for how it manages to cause stress – it’s good to hear others struggle with it too and to hear tips on how to beat it!

  • Alanis

    This was a good article! I’m a huge stress eater too. I love coming home from work to my bowl of ice cream! It is so hard to deny it.
    Great info and tips!

    • Grace B

      Or pint of ice cream! *hides*

      • Alanis

        😂 yes! The bowl turns into a pint!

  • Molly D

    but it tastes so goood

  • Abby

    Excellent article. I gained a lot of weight at my last job because I was stress eating constantly. I’m trying to lose that weight now but it’s such a process. Having healthy snacks like fruit or veggies visible on my desk has been a huge help.

  • Meredith T

    Well, all those pictures of pizza made me hungry. So… I’m going to go eat some food and hope it helps with election-induced stress, even though I know nothing can help.

  • Olivia AP

    Now I want pizza 🙁

  • For already two days in a row I’m having a kit kat bar plus a yoghurt in the afternoon, when I only have a yoghurt as a snack. It’s definitely boringness… And today I wasn’t anymore hungry for dinner (coz of the kit kat) and still I had a souo, some eggs and mushrooms… after that I had the feeling of vomiting.

    Today is not a good day xD… But summarising, I totally agree, we should focus on other happy or important things when this psicological hunger comes to us.

    http://www.mgluxurymarket.com

  • Robin

    But comfort food brings me comfort? I like to have a big bowl of pasta with tomato sauce when I feel lonely or tired. I like to reward myself with a Kitkat when I finish my longest day at uni. Is that… bad???

  • “well, I’ve already made an unhealthy choice today, what difference does it make if I have another _______?” IT ME.

    I remember eating a huge slice of cheese pizza yesterday. I was full halfway through. But how can one not eat a full slice of cheese pizza when one has it???

  • Mahmoud Bizri

    i want a pizza

  • Sarah

    This all was SO relateable

  • kate

    Interesting! Honestly if anyone wants to dive deeper into their relationship with stress/binge eating I highly recommend Isabel Foxen Duke: http://isabelfoxenduke.com/

  • puppy

    although im 100p sure your mental state plays a huge role in eating habits, im nit sure if i agree with your perspective. with a post eating disoredered history, ive recently gotten into intuitive eating, which wants to clear all restrictions in manner to go back to your ‘nature state’ wirh food. this is where the body can crave one piece of chocolate, not the whole bar (and if it does crave a bar, that wont be daily and it will be ok anyway). it is not about cutting out food types, but to allow them and consider them foods, and your body will regulate itself naturally. look up sandra aamodt’s ted talk, as well as christy harrison. we live in a society where we always should remind ourselves of judging our food, which only leaves us in a diet/binge circle.