Stress eating is a vicious cycle perpetuated by anxiety. So, it’s no surprise that 47 percent of adults say they have been eating more or eating unhealthy foods due to the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If have found yourself wondering — why do I stress eat? — and want to learn how to stop, keep reading. This article explains the reasons for emotional eating, its impact, and how to help yourself. 

What Is Stress Eating?

Stress eating, also called emotional eating, is a pattern of eating and behavior that causes one to push down emotions with food. Physical appetite or hunger does not have anything to do with stress eating. 

Unsurprisingly, there is a link between stress and weight gain. When a person’s levels of stress rise, it’s not unusual that they put healthy eating on the back burner. Stress may cause one to:  

  • Exercise or move less 
  • Eat comfort foods 
  • Skip meals
  • Overeat
  • Eat whatever is accessible (which is often unhealthy)
  • Drink less water 

This is because stress causes the body’s cortisol and adrenaline levels to rise, which triggers a physiological response that may compel one to turn to high fat, high sugar, energy-dense, and low nutritional value comfort foods.

This response, known as fight-or-flight, is leftover from the days of early human development when stressors were life-threatening, and food was in short supply. While there is still some benefit to this response, prolonged or chronic stress can lead to a number of different health issues, especially binge eating and complications that can follow. 

Stress Eating Disorder

While it is normal to eat when you are not hungry to relax, stress eating disorder is different. Stress eating disorder follows cycles of high stress, excessive eating, followed by shame and/or more stress. 

This cycle may look like:

You have a hard day at work or get into a fight with someone important to you, so you turn to food, often something sugary, salty, or high in fat, for comfort. Even if you are not hungry, you eat and maybe continue eating past the point of fullness. After the stress eating episode comes a wave of shame or worry, which in turn causes more stress.

When that new wave of stress is not dealt with in a healthy way, it can loop back into another cycle of emotional eating. Not only is it damaging to mental health, but this type of interaction with food can have a negative impact on your physical health

Side Effects of Stress Eating Disorder 

Stress eating disorder is a cycle. This cycle can cause mental and physical health side effects such as:

  • Excessive fatigue 
  • Increased abdominal fat
  • Fluctuations in weight 
  • Stomach pain, cramping, or other gastrointestinal issues
  • Preoccupation with food 
  • Feeling out of control
  • Isolation 
  • Difficulties telling the difference between emotional and physical hunger 

Stress, in conjunction with emotional eating, can also raise your risks for diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart conditions. As cortisol builds with excessive stress, it may raise your blood glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides levels. These changes also contribute to the accumulation of arterial plaque and coronary artery disease. 

Cortisol also impacts metabolic function, which can make weight loss more difficult. Obesity is a compounding factor of each of these conditions and can serve to cause more stress. Conditions like high cholesterol or diabetes do not happen overnight or just because you indulge every once in a while.

The more immediate signs that stress is taking a toll on your body are sleep issues like insomnia, muscle tension, muscle pain, and migraines. However, if stress and related issues like emotional eating go untreated for long enough, your cardiac health may begin to suffer. 

Treating Stress and Emotional Eating 

As mentioned above, stress and emotional eating feed into one another, causing a cycle that is not easy to break. So, what can you do to help manage a stress eating disorder?

Add More Movement To Your Day 

Try to add more movement and exercise to your daily routine. This can include going on a walk, trying out yoga, signing up for a gym, or even setting a timer on your phone that will remind you to get up and stretch every once and a while. Start out small and work your way up to bigger activities if you are intimidated by the idea of beginning a new fitness routine. 

Getting Professional Treatment 

Knowing how to stop stress eating is a process that is hard to take on alone. Reach out to your general physician for help or a referral to a specialist. The consequences are not only physical but mental too, so it is strongly suggested you seek out a mental health specialist as well. 

A therapist or doctor specializing in emotional eating behaviors can help teach you coping mechanisms and strategies for dealing with the thoughts food suppresses. 

Identify and Try to Remove Your Triggers 

Triggers can be emotional, like stress, boredom, anger, or social anxiety. Practice identifying what triggers you to overeat or eat emotionally and take a five-minute break before acting on any impulsive thoughts. Go for a walk, do some deep breathing, or take a moment to assess what you are feeling and why you want to stress eat. 

Other triggers may be environmental. These may include keeping certain types of food in your home that you know you go to when you are stressed out. Consider planning out your meals, making substitutions, or proportioning the food into appropriate containers. 

You do not have to cut out the trigger foods completely. Try not to assign a “value” to them or feel ashamed after eating them, as it will continue the cycle. Instead of thinking of them as taboo or off-limits, let yourself eat them in proper serving sizes to help control the urges. 

You Can Control Stress Eating 

Stress has an impact on many aspects of your life, and it can seriously impact your health. Stress eating is a self-perpetuating cycle that is difficult to break on your own. We hope this article helps you identify resources and motivates you to ask for help. 

Take a look at our activities page to see Ingredia’s natural products for stress relief and overall wellness.