You had a bad day at work, so you grab fried chicken and fries on the way home. You're disheartened by the news, so you plow through a bag of chips. You have to pull an all-nighter to finish a project, so you order a pizza. Ordering a takeout meal or reaching for a bag of snacks is convenient when you're stressed and don't have time to cook. But eating to comfort yourself when you're in a stressful situation, aka "emotional eating," serves a deeper psychological purpose besides just hunger.
"[Emotional eating] makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective," says Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. From the time we're babies, we learn that if we cry, we'll be fed milk. "That's very comforting to us, so we learn that eating is going to soothe our discomfort," she says. As we grow up, we may develop other coping mechanisms in response to stress, but emotional eating remains a common one, she says.
Emotional eating can be defined as eating for any reason other than physical hunger, Malkani says. That could be eating for comfort, avoiding a stressful situation or uncomfortable feeling, filling a void, or even using food as a reward, she says. (To be clear: "emotional eating" is different than binge eating or binge eating disorder.) In truth, all eating is emotional eating, because food brings us pleasure and provides a social experience, so it's not innately a bad thing. But stress eating can often get wrapped up in guilt and shame, which is when it can veer into problematic territory.
Although stress eating can provide momentary relief, it doesn't treat the underlying stress or anxiety. In many instances, eating to relieve stress can make you feel worse, Malkani says. Part of that has to do with our general view of emotional eating, that it's "being bad" or misbehaving from a regimented diet. "We attach feelings of guilt and shame to emotional eating, and that perpetuates the cycle," she says. "When we feel shameful, we tend to isolate ourselves, which can trigger more feelings of stress, which can trigger more emotional eating." (This is similar to the "restrict-rebel-repent" cycle that tends to come up as a result of dieting.) Removing the "shame piece" from the equation is one way you can deal with the underlying cause of your stress, she says.
Equally important, though, is developing other coping mechanisms for stress that you can rely on from time to time, Malkani says. That could be getting some physical activity, talking with a friend, or taking time to reflect when you're experiencing a trigger, she says. If you find that you constantly use food as a crutch, going to therapy can be helpful, and help you understand where that instinct is coming from, says Angel Planells, MS, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Developing some sort of routine or structure around meals, and being more aware of your hunger levels are two additional strategies that you may find useful, Malkani says. "When you’ve been emotionally eating, it's really hard to identify your own true physical cues for hunger and satiety," she says. "To kind of recalibrate those is a way to get in touch with yourself." Using a hunger scale and journaling about your feelings (not about calories or food) when you're compelled to stress eat are a few ways to do that, she says.
The thing to remember is that food is meant to be a pleasurable, enjoyable, and satisfying part of life. Finding effective ways to cope with stress can be a lifelong journey, but it's worth it to find healthy behaviors that work for you — not ones that make you feel guilty. "It takes time, patience, and compassion with yourself to develop a really healthy relationship with food," Malkani says. "There's no perfect road to behavior change."