How to Stop Stress Eating

She earned her Master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Arizona State University. In her early career, she worked as a clinical dietitian in an intensive care unit.

In 2017, Abby co-founded EVOLVE Flagstaff, an integrative practice that offers weight-inclusive services including physical therapy, injury prevention, nutrition counseling, training, and meal preparation. Her nutrition practice mainly focuses on working with athletes and individuals with eating disorders. She helps her clients to re-establish their relationship with food and movement and unlearn behaviors that negatively impact their relationship with their bodies and food.

Apart from her work with clients, Abby is an aerialist and dancer, and director of a non-profit performing arts company, Dark Sky Aerial. She enjoys cooking, coaching strength and conditioning, and teaching yoga. Depending on the season you will find her outdoors biking, skiing, or reading in the sun with her dogs.

How to stop stress eating

As humans, we eat for many reasons. We eat to provide our bodies with energy and calories to function. Food also has a beautiful ability to bring us together with community and family. And it can provide a throughline of connection to our cultural roots. We also eat to cope and manage emotions. We eat when we are happy or sad, and sometimes, we even eat when we are stressed. Our relationship with food encompasses various emotions.

Let’s be clear, all of the reasons listed above are valid reasons to eat. Emotional eating occurs when we eat not out of physical hunger but in response to our emotions. This behavior carries a negative connotation and involves consuming food as a reaction to emotional experiences. It is seen as something negative when we are eating in response to stress, anxiety, loneliness, or anger. But it is rarely demonized when we are eating out of joy and happiness. Before we pathologize the emotions behind why we are eating, let’s take a moment to check-in.

When you find yourself stress eating is it because:

You feel anxious, short-fused, or stressed?

Feeling stressed or anxious is a common sign of hunger. We have all heard of hangry, but hangxiety is also real. This is because if you aren’t eating enough to meet your body’s physiological needs, your body may feel threatened. When your blood sugar drops, your body releases stress hormones. If you haven’t eaten enough in your day, or in the last few hours, you are going to feel emotional.

You’re restricting food overall or certain types of food?

When you restrict food overall or certain types of foods, the restriction may create a feeling of deprivation and increase your cravings for the foods you are restricting. When you aren’t stressed, you may be able to have enough mental bandwidth to maintain your restriction. But when something triggering happens, you will be less likely to be able to maintain this facade of control. It seems counterintuitive, but if you actually allow yourself to eat your “stress food” more often, they will be less triggering, and you will be less likely to feel out of control around them. Having a wide variety of foods available to you throughout the day, including the ones you feel “out of control” around, can be a helpful way to incorporate them into your day and reduce guilt.

Is food your only coping mechanism?

We have a variety of ways to cope with emotions. Some are more healthful than others. Some turn to alcohol, substances, TV, social media, or food. When coping with emotions, we should have a wide variety of tools at our disposal. When dealing with stress some of these may include practices such as breathing, meditation, going for a walk, calling a friend, journaling, or even writing a to-do list. One that isn’t mentioned above that should always be available and allowed is eating. Many of the tools listed above require us to have both time and awareness of what emotion we are feeling. This is why food can be a great coping mechanism. Food is something that we often have access to and it is quick. When we eat, our brains release feel-good hormones like dopamine which provide us with temporary feelings of pleasure and comfort. This can be helpful in the middle of your day when you don’t have time to go for a walk or do a meditation.

But as we all know, brownies or chips don’t last very long. They can be a helpful bridge until we have time and space at the end of the day or the week to reflect back on why we are feeling stressed or anxious. Then we can assess what other tools we can incorporate into our lives that help us manage and resolve stressful feelings. Using a variety of tools to cope with our emotions is helpful so that we have a toolbox that is helpful and comforting no matter the situation. We don’t have to demonize food – it might be just another tool.

When you find yourself stress eating is it because:

Asking Yourself

Practicing awareness of what and how our body is feeling can be a powerful tool in gaining more understanding and respect for what is going on in and around us. You can start to build more awareness by asking yourself:

  • How do I know if I am hungry, full, or satiated? What are some of the emotions, mental cues, and physical sensations that you experience when you are hungry, neutral, and full? This is not an easy question and the answers are going to be very individualized.
  • Do I allow myself to eat my “stress” foods outside of being stressed? If the answer is no, then it makes sense that you feel a sense of urgency and chaos around them. Try to incorporate your stress foods into meals or snacks along with other foods so that you have a variety of options to choose from.
  • What are some initial signs of stress that I can pick up on before I feel like I am spiraling? Do you start to have shorter breaths? Do you feel triggered by small things that wouldn’t normally trigger an intense emotion? Are you regularly incorporating some sort of self-care or self-keeping on a daily or weekly basis to keep stress levels at bay?

If you are struggling with emotional eating and you feel like it is deeply impacting your life and your relationships, it can be helpful to work with a weight-inclusive registered dietitian and a counselor or therapist. Together you can build more awareness around why you’re eating and the root of your stress and emotions. Together you can build a well-rounded toolbox that best meets your needs.