Years ago, a friend gave me a refrigerator magnet that said, “‘Stressed’ is ‘Desserts’ Spelled Backward.” If you’re like my friend, you may have cheered yourself up with a bowl of ice cream after an unusually tough day. Maybe you’ve mindlessly gobbled down chocolate while you were venting to someone about your troubles.

Emotional eating happens to most of us, especially when we’re stressed or going through something difficult. But stress eating doesn’t usually take away stress, and it often adds pounds. And when it gets out of hand – when eating is the first and most frequent response to negative thoughts and feelings – it’s time to get a grip.

What Is Stress Eating?

Stress eating, or emotional eating, is pretty much what it sounds like — it’s 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 than not, it’s just a mindless response to a vague, negative emotion that you can’t quite put your finger on. Stress and boredom can also trigger emotional eating.  It might lead you to order in comfort foods that are higher in calories than your usual meals rather than cooking a healthy meal at home, or skip meals altogether and just graze on a series of unhealthy snack foods.

Stress can bring on fatigue or depression, so healthy eating might take a back seat to foods that are comforting. Those high-calorie comfort foods can stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, but also make us want to keep eating. In a vicious cycle, overeating can lead to weight gain — increasing stress and which, in turn, can lead to more overeating.

How to Tell If It’s Emotional vs. Physical Hunger?

There are few telltale signs that can help you distinguish emotional hunger or stress eating from true, physical hunger:

What’s the Best Way to Prevent Stress Eating?

Here are a few tips and strategies to better control your stress eating behaviors:

1. Keep a food journal.

One thing that helps a lot of people is keeping a food journal because it can really help them see what triggers their 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)

Write down how you’re feeling at the moment. This will help you understand which emotions tend to trigger you to want to eat. Take a few moments to reflect on your feelings and think of ways you can solve whatever it is that’s bothering you. Make a list of things you can do instead of eating.

2. Own up to your feelings.

You know that emotions are the trigger for your stress eating, so why not acknowledge them? It’s OK to feel mad, lonely or bored sometimes. The feelings may be unpleasant, but they’re not dangerous, and you don’t always need to “fix” them. Let your emotions come and go without judging them.

3. 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 the urge to stress-eat 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 for a minute, but the feeling will pass, and it’s probably not nearly as bad as you thought it would be. Practice tolerating your emotions or finding other ways to deal with your stress.

If you feel the need to eat, try hard, crunchy foods; they help relieve stress by putting tight jaw muscles to work. Try snacking on a handful of almonds, soy nuts, or baby carrots.

4. 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. A brisk walk or a cup of herbal tea might work instead. You can also try listening to music, meditating, reading, or calling a friend and talk things over.

5. Wait it out.

Delaying tactics can be a good strategy. You might think that if you don’t eat, the craving will just get worse and worse and worse – but more often than not, the urge simply passes. Rather than immediately giving in to your urges, promise yourself you’ll wait a few minutes. Chances are, you’ll get distracted or busy, and the craving will pass.

6. 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 had a chance to think about it. For instance, one bad day may habitually lead you to five hours of television and one quart of ice cream. So, you need to “un-learn” your bad habits and practice doing something other than eating when a bad day strikes.

7. Eat regularly and don’t skip meals.

If stress is an appetite-killer, try eating smaller amounts of food more often during the day. Give yourself permission to eat. When you’re stressed, it’s easy to put meals off or even skip them altogether; however, your energy levels will suffer as a result, and you might even end up overeating when you do finally eat. 

8. Cut back on caffeine.

People often feel a lack of energy when they’re stressed and turn to caffeine as a pick-me-up, but it can disrupt your sleep at night. If caffeine keeps you awake at night, drink decaffeinated coffees and teas.

9. Practice mindful eating.

When you eat mindfully, you try to become more aware of your internal signals of hunger and fullness. You also become more in tune with what triggers you to eat in the first place. Mindful eating can help you avoid overeating and allow you to enjoy your food more—even when you eat less. You can also learn to pay more attention to what you’re choosing to put into your body.

10. Consume a more colorful diet.

According to new research from Edith Cowan University, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with less stress. In a study of over 8600 adults in Australia, it was found that those who ate at least 470 grams of fruit and vegetables per day – which is somewhere around five average servings – experienced 10 percent lower stress levels than those who consumed less than 230 grams, or just over two average servings.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants that are linked to lower levels of inflammation, which can impact mood.  These healthy foods also add fiber and can contribute to your daily hydration needs. Try creative ways to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, such as blending them into your protein shakes to add delicious flavor and texture, or mixing different fruits into a fruit salad or a mix of veggies in a stir-fry. The flavors play off one another, and the beautiful colors add appeal.

Finally, 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.

Susan Bowerman

Susan BowermanM.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman is the senior director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife. She also serves as the Vice Chair of the Dietetic Advisory Board (DAB). As a registered dietitian, she educates distributors about our global nutrition philosophy and is responsible for developing nutrition education and training materials. Bowerman earned a B.S. in Biology with distinction from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and holds two board certifications as a specialist in Sports Dietetics and in Obesity and Weight Management. When she is not busy teaching and writing, Susan enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and gardening. Her favorite Herbalife products include Simply Probiotic and Herbalife Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix Banana Caramel.