Everyone has different coping strategies when they feel stressed out, depressed, or are finding it difficult to handle the challenges life is throwing their way. Emotional eating, also called stress eating, is one common method for responding to difficult situations. According to the American Psychological Association, more than a quarter of American adults say they eat in order to manage stress and 24 percent of those individuals say this behavior is a habit.
Emotional eating is one of the trickier coping strategies to manage because eating is an inherently healthy activity. Unlike the practice of consuming sugar, alcohol or drugs to manage stress symptoms, eating in moderation is not only beneficial—it is necessary for survival. There is a reason certain dishes are called “comfort food.” When a person eats food—particularly foods high in carbohydrates and fat—it activates the body’s pleasure and reward systems and releases feel-good chemicals such as the neurotransmitter dopamine. Digestion is also tied to the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which slows breathing and heart rate and is responsible for helping the body rest and recover.
Given this biological impetus to eat, it is no wonder that so many people turn to food during a time of crises or when they are feeling worn out or depleted. It is important to note that coping mechanisms are not unhealthy in and of themselves. They can actually be very useful tools to help us get through challenging situations. However, coping strategies can get out of control if they are not acknowledged and managed. On the extreme end of the emotional eating continuum is Binge Eating Disorder, which is characterized by the seemingly uncontrolled consumption of food so rapidly that the individual is often not aware of how it tastes. According to U.S. Pharmacist, Binge Eating Disorder affects about 3.5% of adult women and 2% of adult men in the United States.
It is important to distinguish between emotional eating and an eating disorder. Emotional eating may feel more under control of the individual and may therefore be easier to manage. Here are five strategies for managing stress eating so that food can be used as a helpful tool and not become an addiction that spirals out of control.
- Practice awareness. Self-awareness and self-compassion are the two most important pieces of managing emotional eating. The first step is to acknowledge the fact that you turn to food when you are feeling stressed or under pressure. Once you have brought this to your awareness, you can practice showing forgiveness and acceptance toward yourself when you eat emotionally instead of criticizing yourself—which may exacerbate the situation.
- Remove tempting foods. If you know you will eat an entire box of cookies in one sitting or you struggle with self control around certain foods, then make it a point not to buy those foods or keep them in your house. This will make it more difficult for you to emotionally eat unhealthy foods when you are feeling stressed.
- Replace healthy foods. Sometimes replacing your go-to stress foods with slightly healthier versions can be a way to reduce your emotionally-induced cravings and feel better about what you are putting into your body. For example, if you find yourself reaching for a bag of chips when emotions are high, try replacing them with kale chips or veggie sticks for an equally crunchy but more filling and nutritionally-dense option.
- Reduce stress in your life. Emotional eating is simply a symptom of an underlying stressor—not the problem itself. As you work to manage your emotional eating, make sure you are also reducing stress in your life. Activities such as yoga, meditation and exercise may also help relieve some of your symptoms.
- Get accountability. Having a supportive network of peers who can keep you accountable is one way to keep you on track. If you have friends or colleagues who you can check in with regularly and be vulnerable with about your emotional eating, it may help you get it under control.
If you suspect you are struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for resources and support.
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