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Don’t Stress About Stress Eating: Tips and Tricks for Emotional Eating

Whether it is your Thanksgiving dinner, your grandmother’s famous casserole, or ice cream after a break up, we all have emotional memories that tie certain foods to feeling good.

This association between food and feeling good comes up for most of us every day! For example, lunch can serve as a much needed break in an otherwise mundane work day, and our brain learns to associate eating lunch with a sense of relief or even excitement. This type of eating is called emotional eating, and it is incredibly common. In fact, it is such a common phenomenon that researchers have looked at the science behind it.

When we feel stressed or have negative emotions, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. This hormone increases our cravings of sugary, fatty, salty foods, making it difficult to make healthy choices.

This is even further complicated by the fact that after we eat those sweet, savory, delicious foods, our brains release a chemical called dopamine that makes us feel pleasure, happiness, and joy. Our brain has created a vicious cycle of feel stress, crave unhealthy foods, eat unhealthy foods, and feel better.

When Emotional Eating Becomes Problematic

Emotional eating can be problematic if you are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss. Here are a few signs of emotional eating to watch out for:

  • Emotional hunger comes on very suddenly
  • You crave a very specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will satisfy your hunger.
  • You don’t notice your usual “full” signals and eat to the point of feeling uncomfortable.
  • You feel guilty after you eat.
  • Eating is triggered by an emotion, event, or fatigue rather than your usual routine.

Overcoming Emotional Eating

Overcoming emotional eating is a process, much like changing any other habit. It takes time and practice. One strategy that can help is the AWARE formula:

  • Become AWARE of your behaviors through food logging.
  • WATCH OUT for emotional eating triggers, such as a stressful day at work, parenting stress, fatigue, communication difficulties, unexpected or new demands.
  • ARREST the behavior when it happens.
  • REPLACE the old emotional eating with a new behavior, such as going for a walk, calling a friend, engaging in a hobby, listening to music, or watching a funny video clip.
  • ESTABLISH new beliefs about food and the right reasons for eating.

These steps are easier said than done. If you need additional support or help with changing your eating habits, your bariatric support team is here for you! We are happy to help develop a plan that is individualized to fit your needs and find the best approach to make long-term, sustainable habits.

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About Jenna Ellison, PhD

Dr. Jenna Ellison is a fellowship trained Health Psychologist with WakeMed. Her clinical interests include bariatrics, pain management, sleep, oncology, and physical rehabilitation.

Along with her clinical work, she has published research on psychosocial predictors of health. Dr. Ellison provides care through the biopsychosocial perspective with the goal of helping patients understand and address the connection between health and emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.