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.
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.
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.”