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Stress Eating Is Real. These 7 Strategies Can Help You Stop

If you turn to food when you're stressed, you're definitely not alone. Here's why it happens and how to deal.

Man eating a snack while stressed at work.
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During the holidays, stress levels are often higher than normal. There's a lot to worry about, whether it's the meal you're planning, family members who are visiting or the thought of how much money it costs to celebrate. When stressed, many deal with it by eating comfort foods. Plus, we're prone to eating more while stressed. 

Stress eating is something people deal with every day, and while it's usually not a big deal, it can become one if you're not careful. Constantly overeating due to anxiety and heightened emotions can lead to larger health issues and even disordered eating. Here's how to identify if it's something you experience and how to stop stress eating.

For more information about maintaining a healthy diet and how to stop emotional eating, here are seven foods to boost your mood and foods you should eat based on your blood type.

Why does stress eating happen?

The biggest reason people end up overeating while they're stressed is due to hormones. When you're stressed, your body produces cortisol and that extra cortisol increases hunger. Thus, persistent stress can also lead to overeating. 

Beyond hormones, plenty of people stress eat simply because it's something comforting to experience while you're going through stressors. Turning to comforting foods, like sweets or homey dishes, is an escape from whatever's making you stressed or anxious. 

What are the signs of emotional eating?

You may be inclined to think it's easy to identify if you're a stress eater, but some of the signs aren't all that obvious. Here's what to look out for. 

  • You feel an intense need for food and snacks.
  • You're eating at usual times.
  • You get sudden cravings.
  • You keep turning to specific foods.
  • You're noticeably overeating.
  • You feel guilty after the fact.
Close up of French fries with ketchup
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7 tips to manage stress eating

If you're someone who commonly experiences stress, it's important to understand it so you can work through it. Emotional eating as a result of stress or anxiety every once in a while isn't a big deal, but doing it consistently can become a serious issue if not dealt with. It's important to have a healthy relationship with food to avoid the potential for disordered eating in the future. Here's how to avoid stress eating. 

Search for the root of your stress

The first step toward managing stress eating is understanding why it's happening in the first place. Identifying the root cause can help you nip it in the bud by removing the stressor. Once you know what's making you stressed in the first place, you can see if there's a way to remove it. If you can't remove the stressor -- which is likely, especially if it's your job, school or a person close to you -- you can at least know why you're stressed so you can be prepared to manage it with something other than food.

Practice mindful eating

Eating mindfully means truly paying attention to the food you eat, and it starts with the grocery store. According to Harvard Medical School, when practicing mindful eating you're putting thought into everything that goes into your mouth and appreciating all of it. This means eating only when you're hungry -- but not so starving that you gorge -- taking small bites, and thoroughly chewing everything. When you look at your food while you eat and eat it slowly, you're more likely to eat a bit less because you'll be more aware of when you're full. 

Stock the fridge with healthy options

Set yourself up for success by keeping plenty of healthy foods in the house. You're more likely to eat what's available to you immediately, especially if you're stressed and don't want to think about what to put in your mouth. When you go grocery shopping, make sure to find plenty of foods that pack nutritional value and are still tasty enough that you'll eat them (rather than let them go to waste). Reach for fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, popcorn and more nutritious foods. If you usually lean toward sweets when you're stress eating, eat fresh fruit instead. It's a great swap for sugary foods. 

Identify and watch out for triggers

To identify your triggers, you must first know what they are, so you'll have to be really self-aware. Common triggers for stress eating are stressful situations -- especially the ones that you've previously identified as your stressors -- boredom, certain social settings and bad eating habits. It's easy to eat when you're bored, simply because you have nothing else to do, which is less about stress and more about restlessness. Social settings can also be troubling, especially if you'll be around people who stress you out to the point of overeating or if you'll be surrounded by anxiety-inducing situations that will get to you. As for bad habits, these could be anything that you know you currently experience, like making excuses for yourself.

Stick to a normal eating schedule

Having a routine can have a positive effect on your life, according to Northwestern Medicine. Creating a routine for yourself can lower stress levels in general, which means having a regular eating schedule can help you twofold. The routine will remove any stress related to not knowing what you'll eat and when, plus it'll keep you on track so you're not eating here and there on a whim. If you eat mindfully on a schedule, you'll help your body get into a routine of eating and appreciating only what it needs when it needs it.

Don't put restrictions on your eating

Though you want to eat mindfully and healthily, it's important to not seriously restrict your eating, both in quantity and variety. It's okay to eat junk food here and there. It's OK to have splurge meals while eating healthy the rest of the time. Allow yourself these treats -- and the grace that comes along with it. You shouldn't feel guilty for eating treats. Studies have shown that restrictive eating can lead to disordered eating, which will affect your overall physical and mental health.

Prioritize hydration

If you're feeling pulled toward anxiety eating while you're stressed out, reroute and get a glass of water first. There are a few reasons you should do this. First of all, your body needs a lot of water -- about 12 to 15 cups a day -- so it's always a good idea to grab a glass. Second of all, it's common to mistake thirst for hunger. Many people will eat, thinking they're hungry, when actually their body is thirsty, so go ahead and have that glass of water just in case. Thirdly, if you drink a glass of water first, it'll take up space in your stomach, so if you eat right after, you'll probably eat less because you're fuller faster. 

For more on understanding stress and mental health, check out these common anxiety triggers and thoughts exercises for your mental health.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.