Tell me if you can relate: you get home after a long day at work. You’re hungry. You’re tired. Your house is a mess. Dinner is nowhere near being ready. You pull out a bag of chips and munch as you’re cooking, or maybe you ditch cooking all together and order pizza. Or maybe there’s this: you get to work, plow through emails, and in-between completing your daily tasks are taking mini-trips to the candy bowl or snack selection.
I see clients come in daily relaying these daily struggles with stress eating: feeling stress or discomfort and turning to food. If you can relate, I want you to know that you are not broken. Stress eating doesn’t manifest from lack of self control or willpower; in fact, quite the opposite.
Often when we experience “stress eating” or “emotional eating” there are four prominent factors at play (although there are likely many more!): physiological hunger, the diet mentality, intense stress or uncomfortable emotions, guilt. So before you just “try to have more willpower”, try this:
Honor Your Hunger
This is the second principle of Intuitive Eating and I can’t stress enough it’s importance. When we’re physiologically hungry, our brain prioritizes finding food, and if you’re in a state of stress and physiologically hungry, there is no way for us, no matter how much willpower we have, to unlink those too things. We can’t meditate or walk-off hunger.
Honoring your hunger can be difficult because we’ve been conditioned to think of hunger as having an “on” or an “off” switch. The reality is hunger is more of a range (I like to use a range from 1-10), and it can take some time to recognize the full range of your hunger, especially if you have a history of dieting or disordered eating, which can stunt hunger cues. Try fueling your body with satisfying meals and snacks every 3ish hours, and avoid going longer than 5 hours without eating*. This can help make sure that your body is nourished throughout the day and prevent you from the extreme levels of hunger that can often back-load “stress eating”.
Ditch the Diet Mentality
Surprise, surprise! Another Intuitive Eating principle! The diet mentality has absolutely nothing to do with if you are on a formal “diet” or not. The diet mentality is essentially the black-and-white thinking we have around food; the categorizing of foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, to be eaten or not to be eaten. This makes for an extremely charged relationship around food.
Funny observation: when I work with clients I typically ask two (amongst many) questions on their initial intake form. First I ask what are some of your favorite foods? Second I ask, what are some foods that you limit or avoid? Guess what? There’s at least a 50% overlap in those lists, often times it being closer to 75%, and often 100%! If you’re feeling hunger and stress It makes perfect sense that you would reach for your favorite foods (which happen to also be foods you limit or avoid). I’ve never worked with anyone who “stress eats” foods they hate or only eat because they are perceived as healthy*. Those foods are likely to bring you an overall sense of joy and satisfaction. Until… see below: guilt. But first…
Try giving yourself unconditional permission to eat your favorite foods, especially during times where you are feeling more relaxed and have the opportunity to really enjoy them!
Get Over Guilt
So here’s the thing, “stress eating” or “emotional eating” wouldn’t be pathologized if we didn’t feel guilty afterwards. The feeling of guilt is the feeling of “I’ve done something bad”. If you identify as a “stress eater”, more likely than not there’s a part of you that feels like you’ve done something bad or wrong by using food as a coping mechanism.
When you feel the urge to “stress eat” or “emotional eat” arise, try pausing just for a moment. But listen carefully: the purpose of the pause is not to not eat. The purpose of the pause is to identify your experience. Are you feeling hungry? On a scale from 1-10 (1 being ravenous and 10 being stuffed) where do you fall on the hunger scale)? Are you craving a specific food? What are your feelings towards that food? Is it neutral? Positive? Negative? Confused? Are you feeling stressed? What are you feeling stressed about? Start to identify your experience so you can prioritize your needs. It is possible to feel hungry and stressed at the same time. And it will be very difficult to mitigate stress while hungry, so prioritize fuel and nourishment.
Validate & Mitigate Stress
Stress is real. None of this is to say that you’re not experiencing stress and “it’s all in your head”. If you can, take a beat to validate your stress. Refrain from “toxic positivity” thinking (ie I have no reason to be stressed my life is FINE!) and really just allow yourself to feel stress, sadness, overwhelm, anger… whatever it is.
Make a list of activities that would feel truly nourishing and start crossing those off. As an example, here are some things I like to do when I’m stressed (this is by no means an exhaustive list or do you have to have the same list as me): talk the dog for a walk, make a fresh to-do list with no more than three items that can be done immediately and cross them off, eat a satisfying meal or snack, watching a show, take a hot shower, read in bed, listen to a podcast or audiobook, take a full pause from all activities and just take a few deep breaths.
When we zoom in and take a closer look, stress eating is very rarely only triggered by stress or an intense emotion. There are multiple factors at play, only some of which I’ve named here. As you can see, *I included a few asterisks in here because I feel the need to point out that this topic is extremely nuanced, and it might take more than just reading this blog post to work through struggles around stress or emotional eating. If you feel like you need more support, don’t hesitate to reach out to set up an Initial Assessment and see if we would work well together!
What did you learn from this post? Let me know in the comments below!