In times of stress, loneliness, or boredom, people turn to various coping mechanisms to help them feel better even without realizing it. One of these is stress eating. While it may feel comforting at the moment, emotional eating can cause unhealthy weight gain and other health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure, especially if you turn to sweet and fatty foods.
Strong negative emotions or life events such as relationship conflicts, financial pressures, health problems, fatigue, and work stressors can trigger stress eating. Food can also act as a distraction, causing you to binge instead of focusing on your worries or painful situations. This can lead to unhealthy cycles of overeating. You may feel stressed about a situation, binge eat, feel bad for eating so much, and stress eat again to cope with your negative emotions.
Though it may feel impossible to stop yourself, there are a few ways you can prevent stress eating and take control of your cravings.
Become Aware of Your Triggers.
The first step is to become aware of your triggers. What makes you feel stressed? When do you find yourself reaching for food or opening the fridge even though you don’t feel hungry? If it’s not stress-related, what strong emotions are you trying to cope with or avoid processing?
Focus on the Core Issue.
Stress eating is just a symptom of a deeper unmet need. Instead of binging on certain foods to make yourself feel better, examine your triggers and dig deeper to unveil the core issues. Ask yourself how you feel and what you need. These questions will help you discover what is really bothering you. Processing your emotions and seeking out what you need to work through the deeper issues will help prevent emotional eating.
Develop Healthier Coping Mechanisms.
Once you figure out what you’re feeling and struggling with, turn to other coping strategies like stress-reducing techniques and mindfulness. Recognize hunger pangs and use grounding techniques to pay attention to taste and your surroundings. Learning different ways to reduce stress, such as exercising, yoga, meditation, journaling, or drawing can help you manage strong emotions.
Having a reliable support network that can keep you accountable is crucial in preventing stress eating. Lean on family and friends or another support network that can help you when you feel your cravings or desire to overeat coming on. They can help distract you or talk you through it, allowing you to stop and think about what you are doing instead of reacting to your stress-eating impulse.
Avoid Depriving Yourself.
To lose weight, many people deprive themselves of their favorite foods and try to eat the same meals with no treats in between. However, completely depriving yourself can make your cravings stronger and create a need for sugary or fatty foods when you face strong negative emotions. To avoid unsurmountable cravings, keep your diet balanced. Eat a good number of healthy foods but let yourself enjoy the occasional sweet snack in moderation. Having variety in your diet is important to curb cravings.
Eat Healthy Snacks.
Though chocolate and ice cream may be your go-to comfort foods, they are not sustainable or good snacks to binge on. Instead, place healthy snacks within reach, so if you find yourself reaching for something to munch, you’ll eat something healthy like fruit, unbuttered popcorn, or granola bars. If you have a strong craving, try to find healthy and lower-calorie versions of the snacks you want.
Try to avoid buying unhealthy comfort foods. Even if they are hidden away in the pantry or refrigerator, just having them in the house creates the temptation. More often than not, if the craving is strong, you will do whatever you need to find the food you want to binge on. Removing temptation completely is the easiest way to avoid thoughtless binge eating. The required effort to buy treats may not feel worth it in the moment of stress or strong emotions.
Seek Professional Help.
If these self-help options don’t seem to work for you, a mental health professional can help you gain control of your emotional eating habits. Therapy can help you get to the root of your stress eating and teach effective coping strategies. It can also reveal whether or not you have an eating disorder that perpetuates stress eating.
Emily currently lives in Orange County, California after spending four years in Illinois and half a year teaching in Florence, Italy. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Knox College and an M.A. in Counseling from the University of San Diego and has taught English to native speakers and ESL students for over three years. When she’s not working as a School Counselor or writing, she enjoys traveling the world, playing instruments, and blogging about Millennial experiences at Long Live the Twenties.