Medical News Today: How do I stop stress eating?

Emotional eating is a pattern of eating where people use food to help them deal with stressful situations.

Many people experience emotional eating at one time or another. It could show itself as eating a bag of chips when bored or eating a chocolate bar after a difficult day at work.

However, when emotional eating happens frequently or becomes the main way a person deals with their emotions, then their life, health, happiness, and weight can be negatively affected.

Triggers to avoid

Businessman at his desk emotional eating
Common triggers for emotional eating may include fatigue, habits, boredom, and stress.

Emotions, such as stress, are not the only triggers for emotional eating. Other common triggers that people report include:

  • Boredom: Being bored or having nothing to do is a common emotional eating trigger. Many people live very stimulating and active lives, and when they have nothing to do will turn to food to fill that vacuum.
  • Habits: These are often driven by nostalgia or things that happened in a person’s childhood. An example might be, having ice cream after a good report card or baking cookies with a grandparent.
  • Fatigue: It is easier to overeat or eat mindlessly when fatigued, especially when tired of doing an unpleasant task. Food can seem like the answer to not wanting to do a particular activity anymore.
  • Social influences: Everyone has that friend who encourages them to get a pizza after a night out, go out for dinner or drinks after a difficult day, or as a reward for a good day. It can be easy to overeat when with friends or family.

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Coping strategies

The first step a person needs to take to rid themselves of emotional eating is to recognize the triggers and situations that apply in their life.

Keeping a food diary or journal can help to identify situations when someone is more likely to eat because of emotional instead of physical hunger.

Tracking their behavior is another way someone can gain insight into their eating habits.

The behavior they record can include:

  • patterns of hunger levels, maybe on a 1–10 scale
  • what they are doing and if it is tedious and unpleasant
  • what they are feeling, whether bored or angry,

Next, they may want to brainstorm ideas for ways to counteract the triggers they identify. For example:

  • Someone who eats when bored may want to find a new book that sounds exciting to start reading, or start a new hobby that could provide a challenge.
  • Someone who eats because of stress could try yoga, meditating, or taking a walk to help themselves cope with their emotions.
  • Someone who eats when they are depressed may want to call a friend, take the dog for a run, or plan an outing to cope with their negative feelings.

It can also be helpful to talk to a therapist or psychologist to discuss other ways to break the cycle of emotional eating.

A nutritionist or doctor may also be able to provide a referral to an expert or additional information on creating positive eating habits and a better relationship with food.

Emotional eating is not simply a matter of a person lacking self-discipline or needing to eat less. Likewise, people who eat to deal with stress do not just lack self-control.

The causes are complex and may involve some of the following:

Childhood development

Child in a kitchen eyeing up cookies
Emotional eating may be a learned behavior from childhood that could be difficult to break.

For some people, emotional eating is a learned behavior. During childhood, their parents give them treats to help them deal with a tough day or situation, or as a reward for something good.

Over time, the child who reaches for a cookie after getting a bad grade on a test may become an adult who grabs a box of cookies after a rough day at work.

In an example such as this, the roots of emotional eating are deep, which can make breaking the habit extremely challenging.

Difficulty dealing with emotions

It is common for people to also struggle with difficult or uncomfortable feelings and emotions. There is an instinct or need to quickly fix or destroy these negative feelings, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

And emotional eating is not only linked to negative emotions. Eating a lot of candy at a fun Halloween party, or too much on Thanksgiving are examples of eating because of the holiday occasion itself.

Physical impact of stress

There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:

  • High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If the stress does not let up, another hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.
  • Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.
  • Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.

Physical vs. emotional hunger

It is very easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. But there are characteristics that distinguish them.

Recognizing these subtle differences is the first step towards helping to stop emotional eating patterns.

Does the hunger come on quickly or gradually?

Emotional hunger tends to hit quickly and suddenly and feels urgent. Physical hunger is usually not as urgent or sudden unless it has been a while since a person ate.

Is a food craving for a specific food?

Emotional hunger is usually associated with cravings for junk food or something unhealthy. Someone who is physically hungry will often eat anything, while someone who is emotionally hungry will want something specific, such as fries or a pizza.

Is there such a thing as mindless eating?

Mindless eating is when someone eats without paying attention to or enjoying what they are consuming.

An example is eating an entire container of ice cream while watching television, having not intended to eat that much. This behavior usually happens with emotional eating, not eating through hunger.

Does the hunger come from the stomach or the head?

Emotional hunger does not originate from the stomach, such as with a rumbling or growling stomach. Emotional hunger tends to start when a person thinks about a craving or wants something specific to eat.

Are there feelings of regret or guilt after emotional eating?

Giving in to a craving, or eating because of stress can cause feelings of regret, shame, or guilt. These responses tend to be associated with emotional hunger.

On the other hand, satisfying a physical hunger is giving the body the nutrients or calories it needs to function and is not associated with negative feelings.

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Emotional eating is a common experience and is not usually associated with physical hunger. Some people succumb to it occasionally while others can find it impacts on their lives and may even threaten their health and mental wellbeing.

Anyone who experiences negative emotions around their eating habits should arrange a visit to their doctor to discuss their issues. They may also want to consult a registered nutritionist or another therapist to help them find solutions or coping mechanisms.

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