What is stress eating and how to avoid it?

What is stress and emotional eating? How are they connected? And what about how to avoid stress eating?

Let’s back up first…

It all started with dessert. Due to a special occasion, a beautiful cheesecake sat atop a cake stand in the center of the counter.

6 Things This Dietitian Would NEVER Do

A family member said that “we should cut it up, and take it to work/friends so that we don’t have it in the house anymore.”

I knew this comment was made with only one thought in mind. They looked at me seriously and said, “the best way to deal with temptation is to not present yourself with it.”

That statement made me freeze for a second.

I realized all the truth behind that statement. Because having a piece of cake, isn’t always as simple as having a piece of cake. That piece of cake was a security blanket, a fuzzy teddy bear, and a coping mechanism for dealing with high emotions and stressful environments for this family member. I remembered that for this family member in the past, calorie counting and point watching mattered. And even further into the past when a cake in the kitchen wouldn’t mean “cut it up and give it away”, but rather, let us all sit down and enjoy it together.”

So, the real question here was, how can I help my family member avoid stress eating or emotional eating while teaching them to enjoy food again? How could I make them realize that food is not the enemy nor is it the solution to their stress and uncomfortable emotions? As a registered dietitian, I am used to friends and people around me telling me about the latest fad diet or food craze that they have taken part in, fueled by media influence that has convinced them that it would help them reach their nutrition goals. There is a very real belief that sugar is addicting and the best way to deal with these problem foods is to keep them out of the house.

Emotional Eating is Normal and OK

Before we get into my tips for managing stress or emotional eating, I first want to normalize emotional eating. If you can relate to this story and you struggle with having these types of fun foods in the house because you turn to them in times of stress, emotion, or boredom, I want you know that it’s ok. It is NORMAL to eat emotionally and it’s okay to eat for emotions. It’s ok to be happy and celebrate with friends with an order of french fries. It’s ok to be sad and have a scoop of ice cream. But it’s also important that eating is not your ONLY coping tool for these emotions. We can use food as a tool in our toolbox for dealing with emotions, but that means there are other tools in our toolbox as well. Check out this blog on coping mechanisms that use the five senses.

Food is not the enemy.  In fact, it is a basic pleasure in life and there is no need to be fearful of food.  Food does not need to have so much power over you.  If you are stressing about food and having so much life energy sucked up by stressing about food, I would encourage you to seek help from an expert who can help you put the joy back into food.

The intention of this blog is to help you become more aware of how food can be a coping mechanism in your life.  Like most coping mechanisms, they are there for a good reason. We would like for you to look at the role food plays in your life and help you understand that food does bring joy, connection, and pleasure into life.  There is no reason to eat only when you are hungry and stop when you are full EVERY single time.  I definitely want you to enjoy the cake at your best friend’s birthday because you are celebrating together.  In addition, I certainly don’t want you to go home afterward, and stress about that cake you ate.  That being said, here are some ways to add balance into your life so that food is not your only tool for managing stress or emotions.

How to avoid stress eating and emotional eating

1. Practice self-care EVERY DAY.

  • By taking time out of your busy and stressful life to do nothing more than take care of yourself, you are making your well-being a priority. If this seems like a stressful task in itself, start small!
    • Eat your lunch, uninterrupted, outside, or in a calm place.
    • Journal for five minutes.
    • Diffuse some calming essential oils like lavender and practice a breathing exercise or meditation.
    • Read a chapter in a book or play a quick game like sudoku.
    • Take a couple of hours for a date with a friend or go for a walk by yourself if alone time is what you need. These small acts add up to a more relaxed, less stressed you. Or try some yoga?

grounding exercises

2. Make sure you are eating throughout the day to avoid stress and emotional eating.

By having consistent meals throughout the day, you can be sure that you are being nourished and well-fed. When your brain and body have enough energy, the tasks that seem stressful or daunting may become more manageable. Eating often throughout the day will also help you avoid ravenous hunger at night time and after work.

Combinations of carbs, protein, and fat will help keep you feeling satisfied at meal time. Incorporate colorful veggies in different ways to feel more full and have more fiber and phytonutrients. Sprinkle broccoli with sesame seeds or toss julienned vegetables in oil and add specialty vinegars to make them more interesting!

Don’t forget snacks. Try roasted chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or other healthy snack recipes on our blog.

roasted chickpeas how to avoid stress eating

3. Make an effort to engage in joyful movement to decrease stress and emotional eating.

Exercise releases endorphins and other feel-good hormones that can help to melt away stress and anxiety. But the key to cashing in on these feel-good hormones is exercising in a way that, well, feels good! Don’t go for a run just because it is “good for you.” If you don’t enjoy the movement you are doing, it will be harder to reap the benefits and/or be consistent. 

dance how to avoid stress eating

4. Don’t forget to incorporate fun food.

Restricting and swearing off all of your favorite foods will ultimately make eating an unenjoyable experience in itself. Just another stressor in your life! Fun foods in moderation will bring enjoyment into eating and help you avoid binging later on down the road. Chocolate is one of my favorite fun foods! I like to enjoy it with berries for a different flavor/texture, or a spoonful of peanut butter! Try our Perfect Bars recipe for a yummy snack option that incorporates chocolate chips. 

5. Make a follow-up with your Registered Dietitian.

Have you ever said to yourself “I know what I need to do, I just need to do it”?  Well, that is exactly what your dietitian is for. Their minds are loaded with tips and tricks to make eating enjoyable and stress-free! They can help you to meal plan, budget, and fight chronic disease. Sound similar to your nutrition goals?

The struggles that my family member faces, and their obscured thoughts about food,  fuels my passion and has made my path towards becoming a Registered Dietitian clearer. Showing the world that food should be enjoyed and not stressed about is what I want to do. Breaking the dieting cycle, busting down the bars that stand between you and living joyfully, and loving yourself is what I want to help empower you and others to do.

Resources for emotional eating:

Thankfully there is hope and resources. Our REBEL dietitians are here to help. In addition to our “Taste the Sweet Rebellion workbook,” which helps you break free from the dieting prison, we now have a new book to help you better nourish yourself aptly called: Nourish: 10 ingredients to happy, healthy eating.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one might be struggling with binge eating disorder, take a look at this blog for more information.

To schedule a consultation, email us at admin@rbitzer.com or call us at 301-474-2499.

Blog reviewed and updated March 2020.

Klara Knezevic is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Maryland. She has over a decade of experience in the nutrition field and currently serves as the CEO and co-owner of Rebecca Bitzer and Associates, one of the largest nutrition private practices in the country. Klara is passionate about sharing practical nutrition tips to help you feel confident in the choices that you make. Coauthor of Cooking with Food Sensitivities Survival Guide and Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating.