How to Stop Stress Eating Right Now

21 Apr

 Posted by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training  0 Comment

Stress eating doesn’t usually take away stress, and if it’s done too often, it can also add pounds. Here are some tips to beat this habit.


Emotional Eating: It Happens.

Emotional eating happens to many of us from time to time. Maybe you’ve cheered yourself up with a bowl of ice cream after an unusually tough day, or sneaked a few French fries from your best friend’s plate while recapping a disastrous date. But when emotional eating gets out of hand—when eating is the first and most common response to negative thoughts and feelings—it’s time to get a grip.

What is stress eating?

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is when you eat in order to escape whatever bad feelings you’re experiencing, in the hope that food will make you feel better. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, but more often it’s just a mindless response to a vague, negative emotion. You may not know what’s bothering you, but you’re pretty sure that food is the one thing that will cure whatever ails you.

Is it emotional or physical hunger?

There are few tell-tale signs that can help you distinguish emotional hunger/stress eating from true, physical hunger.

  • Emotional stress eating usually comes on suddenly. You start feeling stressed or tense, and wham! You’re craving nachos. On the other hand, physical hunger tends to come on gradually. You’re starting to feel hungry but you can wait to eat, which gives you some time to choose wisely and satisfy that hunger with something that’s good for you.
  • Stress eating usually causes a craving for a food that’s sugary, fatty and high calorie—and often very specific (not simply “chocolate,” but “a slice of triple layer fudge cake from Fred’s Diner on 6th Street”). But when you’re physically hungry, food in general sounds good to you. You’re willing to consider several options that will satisfy your physical hunger, which means you’re more likely to make a better choice.
  • Once your physical hunger is satisfied and your stomach is comfortably full, it’s a signal that you’ve had enough and you tend to stop eating. But when emotions are the driver, it’s easy to ignore what your stomach is telling you—and you wind up eating way too much while attempting to make yourself feel better.
  • Stress eating might lift your mood momentarily – then, just as quickly, shame and guilt often move in. On the other hand, when you finish a meal that’s satisfied your physical hunger, you don’t usually feel guilty afterwards for having eaten.

Tips for dealing with stress eating behaviors

  • Keep a food journal – A food journal can really help you see what triggers your stress eating. Whenever you feel the need to eat, make a note of how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = I’m faint with hunger; 10 = I’m so stuffed I have to loosen my clothing). Then write down how you’re feeling at the moment.
  • Own up to your feelings – You know that emotions are the trigger for your stress eating, so why not acknowledge them? It’s okay to be mad or lonely or bored sometimes. The feelings may be unpleasant but they’re not dangerous, and you don’t always need to ‘fix’ them.
  • Work on your coping skills – Every time you eat in response to stress, it’s just a reminder that you can’t cope with your emotions. When stress strikes, try asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that will happen if I don’t eat?” Yes, your stress level might rise a bit, but the feeling will pass. Practice tolerating your emotions, or finding other ways to deal with your stress.
  • Find alternatives to eating – Take a few moments to reflect on your feelings and think of ways you can solve your problem. Make a list of things you can do instead of eating, like walking, listening to music or meditating.
  • Unlearn your bad habits – Emotional eaters continually reinforce the idea that the best way to treat negative emotions is with food. And like other bad habits, stress eating happens before you’ve even had a chance to think about it. So, you need to “un-learn” your bad habits and practice doing something other than eating when a bad day strikes.
  • Wait it out – Stress eaters often are afraid that if they don’t satisfy the urge to eat, the craving will just get worse. But when they practice delaying tactics, they’re often surprised that the urge simply passes. Rather than immediately giving in to your urges, promise yourself you’ll wait a few minutes and let the craving pass.

Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to work on your stress eating. If you find that these tactics aren’t working for you, ask your health care provider if counseling or group support might be helpful for you.

Food Cravings and Your Body

21 Apr

 Posted by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training  0 Comment



Are food cravings really the body’s way of telling us we’re lacking certain nutrients? The belief holds that nature creates these strong and specific food cravings so we’ll consume the necessary foods to make up the deficit.

It seems like a logical connection that pregnant women, for example, must crave ice cream because they lack calcium, or pickles because they need sodium. Or that we turn to chocolate to cheer us up, because it supplies us with compounds that are supposedly lost during a crying bout.

But scientific studies discount these notions and instead say that cravings—specifically, the intense desire for a particular food, drink or taste—are triggered not by nutritional shortages, but by a more complex set of circumstances.

Yes, chocolate does have some biologically active compounds. Two of them—phenylethylamine and anandamide—could potentially trigger the release of mood enhancing chemicals in the brain, but there’s so little found in chocolate that it’s doubtful there’s enough to have much effect. On top of that, they’re broken down during the digestive process so it’s unlikely that they reach the brain intact – which is the only way they’d do any good.

Pregnant women do yearn for foods that are very sweet, spicy or salty. But it’s thought that these food cravings are driven not by any specific nutritional need. Instead, they reflect a natural drive put there by Mother Nature. In ancient times, when food was scarce, a craving for highly palatable foods would help boost calorie intake and ensure a healthy pregnancy. Nowadays, getting enough calories is usually not the problem. But pregnant women may be using cultural norms—they’re ‘eating for two’—to support giving in to their urges for high calorie fare.

In another blow to the theory that nutritional deficits drive food cravings to replace the nutrient in question, it’s been well documented that some women who are iron deficient will eat huge amounts of ice—which is virtually iron-free. My mother-in-law used to do this. When she was going through menopause, she’d munch through two trays of ice cubes during the evening news. It’s not known why low iron stores trigger this craving, but the yearnings usually go away when the iron deficiency is corrected.

So, it looks as if it’s the complexity of the individual, not so much the complexity of foods, that sparks these strong urges. We’re influenced by personal, physiological and social pressures in making food choices, and we may use cravings as a way to justify their consumption.

Ice doesn’t repair an iron shortage, but some people apparently derive pleasure from chewing it. Pregnant women don’t crave ice cream because they need calcium. They crave it because it’s delicious and because its consumption is sanctioned during pregnancy. It’s not just the bioactive compounds in chocolate that we need. We crave chocolate because it’s such an amazing sensory experience—it’s sweet, smooth, creamy, aromatic and extremely pleasurable to eat. And since it’s loaded with fat and calories, it’s a sinful, forbidden food, too—which just makes it that much more appealing.