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Stress-Binge Eat- Repeat: Understanding Cycle Of Stress Eating


Anyone who would have scrolled through a social media app would have come across memes that speak about emotional eating - be it someone ready to eat a horse, stressed being dessert spelled backward or what happens 2 hours after we promise ourselves to be healthy. The reason those memes exist and this blog is written is because everybody has had experienced eating for psychological reasons. We’re going to unpack the science behind stress eating and how to overcome it.

What is Stress Eating or Emotional Eating?
Stress eating can happen due to positive and negative events. If you have a new job or have shifted to a new place, these are positive transitions, though heavily associated with stress, anxiousness and worry. Similarly, the worry about finances, uncertain nature of relationships and inability to move out of homes can be negative events. The stressor can be either sudden or prolonged, but once the cortisol (stress level) hormone reaches a certain threshold, it pushes our mind to curb these feelings by turning to ‘comfort food’, which makes us feel temporarily better, creating a cycle of learned behavior. Do remember that emotional eating can be brought on by other factors as well, some of which are: boredom, mindless munching, habit, social circles, fatigue, inability to focus and difficulty with sleep.

Answer these 5 questions to know if you’re prone to emotional eating?
1. If there is a small party and you’re feeling anxious to go and mingle, do you find yourself gravitating towards food?
2. Do you munch on something while watching a movie?
3. If a task at hand is stressing you out, do you turn to food for comfort?
4. When consuming junk food, do you tend to eat faster than usual?
5. Does part of rewarding yourself for something involve food?
If you answered yes to 3 or more questions, you are prone to emotional eating and can find yourself frequently with residual feelings of remorse. Emotional eating is when we consume foods high in fat or sugar to soothe ourselves and deal with difficult emotions or situations. This is different from a physiological need to eat, aka hunger, where the stomach rumbles and the body expects food at the same time every day.

How To Identify Signs Of Emotional Eating?
The way your body feels hungry can indicate whether it is stress eating:
1. The hunger feels urgent. It comes on as a sense of urgency that needs to be satiated right away, and snowballs within a few minutes. You will also find yourself consuming food hungrily and fast when you give in.
2. The food craving is specific. You feel hungry for a specific food or drink, and even if you have a large quantity of something else, it feels incomplete and you find yourself needing that particular food to feel ‘full’.
3. Post consumption, you find yourself with feelings such as guilt, regret or shame. The urgency that you felt earlier seems irrelevant and you wonder if there was a need to eat at all. This usually leads to being hard on yourself or creating resolutions to eat healthily and not indulge in sugar/high-fat food for xx amount of time.

How To Control Stress Eating?
1. Food Journal: Take 90 seconds to keep a track of your hunger level, what you were doing, how you were feeling, and the three-pointers above. This way you will start finding patterns and know your triggers better, to manage them.
2. Accessibility: Limit the quantity and variety of comfort food that is present around you. Reducing the ease of having them handy will stop you for a few minutes, where you can choose to evaluate if you need or want to eat them. When this happens, give in at alternate times to reduce the habit without being hard on yourself.
3. Restrict v/s Balance: When learning to limit your comfort food intake, don’t go to extreme measures and deprive your body. If you’ve been used to consuming comfort food 4 times a week and you suddenly go to zero, your mind will think you are starving. This is ineffective in the long term, since it increases your cortisol levels, leading to an eventual crash where you give in to temptations. This is one of the reasons why extremely hard diets tend to fail. Instead, watch your portions. Put your snacks on a plate instead of eating from the box. Try to chew slowly and mindfully, so you listen to your body signals of when to stop.
4. Make Time For Movement: As we’ve seen, cortisol levels play an integral part in stress eating. Movement or exercise is scientifically effective in reducing cortisol levels. Regular walking, yoga, stretching or any sports can be your biggest ally in overcoming stress eating.
5. Accountability Partner: Have someone you trust to be your accountability partner. The purpose of having this person is so that you can express to them when you feel a need, or hear from them when they’re going through something similar which feels empowering, find something to do together, give each other distraction techniques and have someone remind you why you can do this and how strong you are. Find an accountability partner here and get started.
6. Alternate: There are two ways to alternate: alternate the behavior or alternate the food. In the former, curate a list of activities that provide you joy and satisfaction. When you feel the sudden urge to eat, try doing some of those pre-listed activities. Secondly, identify the nature of your craving - is it savory, sweet or liquid-based? Try alternating them with healthier fats. For instance, apple with nut butter for sweets, hummus for savory and cold-pressed juices for drinks.

Remember that changes don’t happen overnight. You won’t find yourself overcoming stress eating in one day. But with 5% changes in a week, the goal is closer than you thought. Overcoming stress eating is multi-faceted, so remember to be kind and look at factors outside of food itself.

If your everyday surroundings are stressing you frequently and you feel like speaking to a professional might help, please don’t hesitate. You can try out the ‘Get Matched’ feature on our platform to get connected with the right professional and start your mental health journey with us.

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