Over the past year, between the global pandemic, countless acts of racism and police brutality, an increasingly tense political climate—the list goes on and on—who among us has resisted the urge to self-soothe here and there with our favorite comfort foods? Maybe you keep a bag of chips close by for agonizing Zoom calls, or perhaps you always order pizza after a long day. Regardless of your go-to, emotional eating is something we all do, especially in times of high stress. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers across the globe have noted increased reports of emotional eating in response to the psychological distress associated with quarantining.
So, how concerned should you be if you, too, occasionally find yourself devouring mini ice cream sandwiches while you watch the news in an effort to make the headlines easier to swallow? (Just me?)
Well, contrary to popular belief, not all emotional eating is “bad,” says One Drop health coach Julia Dugas, RDN, LD, CPT, Pn1.
“Emotional eating ranges from anything as innocent as having a piece of candy because it tastes good, to using food as a form of self-punishment,” she explains, citing the spectrum of emotional eating from the book Intuitive Eating, written by RDNs Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. That spectrum includes eating for sensory gratification (a.k.a. for pleasure, the least harmful emotional eating behavior), followed by eating for comfort (think: craving chicken soup when you’re sick), for distraction (like when you snack on M&M’s during work calls), for sedation (i.e. numbing your feelings with food), and, finally, eating for punishment (the most harmful form of emotional eating).
Why Stress Affects Our Eating Habits
Interestingly enough, our body’s initial physiological response to stress is actually not to feel hungry, says Dugas. When we’re stressed, our nervous system triggers our adrenal glands to produce the hormone epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), which then activates a fight-or-flight response that temporarily pauses our urge to eat, according to Harvard Health.
Hunger comes in as a result of a different stress hormone: cortisol. Research suggests that cortisol stimulates your appetite and can cause insulin levels to fall, increasing your blood sugar in the process, which then amps up your desire to eat sugary, fatty foods. If you experience enough stress over time, your blood sugar may continue going up and down, potentially becoming more and more difficult to manage. Meanwhile, those fat- and sugar-rich foods really do seem to ease your body’s stress-related responses, so you keep going back for more because, plain and simple, it feels really good.
Putting Mind Over Munchies
First, it bears repeating that not all emotional eating is problematic. “Feeling our feelings 24/7 can be exhausting,” says Dugas. “It’s totally normal for us to seek ways to cope or distract ourselves from our emotions and feelings. Food is one way that we can do that.”
If you’re worried about eating too much or for the wrong reasons, Dugas says it’s worth asking yourself whether you’re truly engaging in emotional eating, or if you’re simply addressing feelings of hunger that, in the past—a past that may have included a busy lifestyle of commuting, working in an office, networking, attending events—you may have ignored.
“Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot of concern from people about working from home and having access to a fridge and pantry all day,” explains Dugas. “What is interesting about this ‘problem’ is that, as humans, we need to learn how to regulate ourselves around food rather than rely on the absence of food to help us not overeat or binge.”
In other words, if you’re having a hard time resisting the urge to eat all day while working from home, it could be a matter of emotional eating (especially if you usually find yourself reaching for food in response to something stressful, like an urgent work email or a mind-blowing news alert). But it could also signal that you’re not eating enough throughout the day in the first place, says Dugas. In that case, she continues, the solution is to figure out what’s missing from your diet, rather than what you should remove from it.
On the other hand, if you are dealing with emotional eating, again, that’s totally normal. The real cause for concern is when emotional eating becomes our primary way of coping with emotions, explains Dugas. “If we find ourselves turning to food to cope with any emotion we experience, we are doing ourselves a disservice by not getting to the root of the problem,” she says. “Food will never help us cope with whatever we are dealing with in life in the long run. If you find that you’re turning to food often when you’re not actually hungry, it may be time to dig deeper.”
So, what does “digging deeper” look like? Here are Dugas’s tips on how to manage emotional eating.
- Reframe your perspective. When it comes to emotional eating, says Dugas, we tend to focus on the role of the food itself in our behavior. "Often I hear, 'I'll eat the whole bag of chips if they're in the house, so I don't buy them,'" she explains. "While this may seem like a reasonable solution, it really isn't serving you in the long run." Instead of figuring out ways to restrict your food, she suggests turning your focus inward to address what's causing you to use food as a coping strategy in the first place.
- Be gentle with yourself. Sometimes you'll eat the cake and love it. Sometimes you'll eat the cake and feel way too stuffed afterward—and that's okay. "Rather than looking at overeating as a failure, look at it as a learning experience as you reflect on how your body feels," says Dugas. For example, instead of beating yourself up for how much you ate, try thinking to yourself: "I ate a lot of food, and now I feel uncomfortable. I don't like how this feels. Next time, I'll pause and check in with my body more frequently when eating to determine the best amount of food for my hunger levels at that time."
- Consider seeing a therapist. "Working with a therapist can be really helpful in identifying what we're feeling and why, and addressing underlying issues that may be causing emotional eating," says Dugas. Not sure where to start? Mental Health America has gathered dozens of helpful resources, including services and organizations that offer affordable mental health treatment for those without insurance. You can also go to Psychology Today's website or mentalhealth.gov to search for local mental health resources by state or zip code. If you live with diabetes and are struggling with emotional eating, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) offers its own mental health provider directory that allows you to search based on your location as well.
- Write down how you feel. Remember: The key to understanding and managing emotional eating is identifying the stressors and emotions that trigger your desire to eat. And what better way to understand yourself and your feelings than to brain-dump in a journal? Whether you want to do it the old-fashioned way with pen and paper or jot down notes in your phone when the mood strikes, try using these prompts to dive deeper into emotional eating:
While One Drop coaches can support changes in eating habits, they cannot diagnose and/or treat eating disorders or other disordered eating behaviors. If you or someone you know is experiencing disordered eating, professional resources are available online from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) or through the NEDA helpline at 800-931-2237.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Harpreet Nagra, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, and VP of Behavioral Science at One Drop.