What is stress eating? Experts, studies explain

Isabel Calkins
·5 min read

Global pandemic? Unemployment? Elections? Global climate crisis? Many people — and with good reason — are finding it difficult to get through their days without major stress and anxiety. While some utilize coping mechanisms like exercise, music or meditation, others turn to their favorite foods and snacks to feel better, a practice more colloquially known as “stress eating.”

Why do people eat when they’re stressed?

Why does this happen, you ask? Believe it or not, stress-eating is actually triggered by a chemical in your body and not just a regular old craving for Cheez-its and ice cream. According to a Harvard Health study, when you are stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which is known to increases appetite and motivation, including the motivation to eat.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 29:  Princess Diana Adjusting Her Tiara During A Banquet In New Zealand  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Princess Diana, during a banquet in New Zealand, appears stressed while eating. (Photo: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

When you indulge and give into that cortisol craving, your stress levels actually are impacted. “Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress-related responses and emotions. These foods really are "comfort" foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods,” the study notes. So it’s not a terrible thing.

Understanding food as a coping mechanism

But stress-eating goes beyond just the physical reaction in your body, it is emotional as well. According to Kelly Scott, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Senior Therapist at Tribeca Therapy, in order to understand stress-eating and how to combat it, it is important to understand that there are different types of stress that can lead to this behavior of utilizing food as a coping mechanism: acute (long term) and short-term stress.

Given the current climate, the more common stress is short-term stress that is directly related to a specific event or action, like the 2020 election. When you are put into a stressful or high anxiety situation and reach for low-hanging fruit like carbs, sugar or other food, you are essentially going back to one of the first self-soothing methods you learn as a child: getting nourishment from food. “Feeding and nourishing ourselves is the most elemental way that we care for ourselves,” Scott says. “And it goes back to the first way we experienced care from another being: our mothers. There is something very on-the-nose about overeating, and eating unhealthily as it relates to our emotions. We are trying to take care of ourselves.”

Healthy versus unhealthy behavior

While this in and of itself is not an unhealthy way of coping, it becomes a problem when you can no longer deal with the consequences of your actions. If a generally healthy person (both emotional and physically), feels the need to veg out in front of the TV with a bottle of wine to watch the election returns, that can be OK. But if the results lead to physical illness or pain, like a stomach ache, hangover, just overall gross feeling, that is a signal that is may not have been the best choice for you.

“It’s the difference between waking up the next day and tolerating the consequences of your choices, or going into a shame spiral,” Scott notes on recognizing whether your behavior is healthy or not. What you want to avoid is looking into the mirror and calling yourself stupid for eating the entire pizza in one sitting when you know you are lactose intolerant.

How to deal

Luckily, there are ways in which you can enjoy your favorite snacks and drinks to deal with stress without crossing the line into unhealthy. According to Scott, there are two main strategies you can use if you regularly turn to food for comfort in a stressful situation: Mindful eating and distract/replace.

The first is simple: be aware of your eating patterns. Rather than mindlessly eating an entire bag of chips, be mindful about how much you are consuming, and when you find yourself giving in to these cravings. This is the easiest way to create healthy habits that don’t involve depriving yourself.

One way to do this is by practicing mindful eating. Per Yael Shy, Mindfulness Coach and Author of What Now? Mindfulness for Your Twenties and Beyond, this entails sinking into the full experience of eating and spending time in each of your senses, not just taste. “First, look at your food, take it in, what it looks like. Then bring to mind what it took to get that piece of food on your plate; the supply chain, grocery store, farm, etc. This connects you to everyone around you, and not just people, but the earth itself.” Simply put, this eating method helps you get in touch with your aliveness, rather than just shoveling something in to get rid of a feeling.

The next strategy is to replace or distract. “If you know you are going to be tempted to drink a bottle of wine and hate yourself the next day, maybe you prepare in advance. Make mocktails, prepare seltzer, anything that will give you the same physical sensation without it being so costly,” Scott also recommends. Distraction also plays a major role. “The more you can do to not let yourself get into that emotional spiral that leads to self-shame, the better. Go for a walk, talk to someone on the phone. Do something to mix it up when you feel yourself crossing the line.”

All in all, stress-eating is neither a good nor bad method of coping with everything going on in the world. If eating an entire bag of honey mustard and onion pretzels gives you joy when shit hits the fan, then by all means, go forth! What matters is whether or not this behavior is actually harming, instead of helping, with the stress.

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