Emotional Stress Eating: Why You Do It and How to Stop

By Val Silver

Is emotional stress eating your way of soothing yourself when you feel anxious or upset?  Or perhaps you are addicted to foods and stress makes the desire for those foods even stronger?

A little emotional eating is natural and not something to worry about. But when you find yourself reaching for sweets and too much food too often, it can wreak havoc with your health and weight goals.

The concern is not necessarily that you indulge or overindulge on occasion, but whether it is happening often enough to sabotage your healthy eating plan, your well-being and your weight.  It is a matter of whether you feel in control of what goes in your mouth or not.

What Causes Stress Eating?

There is more than one reason why we grab for food when feeling stressed or anxious.

First, feelings of emotional distress have a powerful effect on the brain. Chemicals associated with these feelings trigger strong cravings for snacks and comfort food. Brain chemical and hormonal changes decrease your sense of fullness and reward your compulsion to eat more.  Many emotional eaters soothe troubling emotions such as fear, anger, loneliness and sadness with food as a way to self-medicate and regulate their moods. 

Secondly, emotional eating is often a learned behavior. Like most subconscious programming, you learn to use food for comfort by association and repetition. Most likely, these associations are formed before the age of seven, but can happen anytime.

It is not uncommon to associate food with love. After all, we all have to eat, and most of us eat several times a day. During those times we interact with others. Our parents fed us and held us. Later, we had their attention as they spoon fed us.  

From birth on, we have heard messages that certain foods make us feel good, enhance relationships, and make activities more enjoyable. 

A cookie and a hug from mom eased the pain of a poor grade or a skinned knee. Your family probably celebrated happy occasions with a nice meal or cake and ice cream. You may have been rewarded or distracted with goodies. Associations were formed, even though there is no direct connection between the two. 

And then there is the media. How many advertisements and commercials have you seen of approving parents, excited children and satisfied, smiling workers eagerly stuffing yet another processed munchie into their mouths? 

To compound this, your brain makes associations between what stresses you and what you are eating at the time. Without even realizing it, you condition yourself to eat those foods whenever those feelings are triggered.

If you feel compelled to stuff sweets and other comfort foods in your mouth throughout the day to comfort yourself, you may be an emotional eater. For you, these associations are strong and more encompassing. You may feel like you are living to eat instead of eating to live. And along with that, come health problems and unwanted pounds. 

stress eating, eat to live moliere

How to Stop Emotional Eating

First, know that eating when you are stressed is a natural response. It is not a reflection of who you are as a person. Also know that changing your stress eating patterns is do-able, but it takes awareness and commitment. The following suggestions will help you change those patterns and improve your relationship with food.

  • Develop awareness of your triggers. If the emotional eater in you operates unawares, your best efforts at healthy eating will be sabotaged by your subconscious programming. Notice when and why you grab that extra goody or snack. What triggered you? Were you feeling upset, afraid, angry? Did you just complete a job? Are you transitioning from one activity to another? Were you feeling physical pain? Were you getting tired or thirsty? Why do you want to eat? What will eating do for you in this moment? Keep a journal for a week or two and note what patterns emerge.  Once you've identified your triggers and patterns, create options for redirecting your behavior and how you want to respond to the trigger. For example, you can decide to close your eyes for a few moments of deep, centering breaths when your buttons are pushed or have healthier alternatives on hand. 
  • Figure out what it is you really want. Get beneath your conditioned response to eat. Other than because of true hunger, why did you eat? Did you need an energy boost? A reward or distraction? Were you trying to connect with someone or indulge in stress eating to soothe yourself? 
  • Decide how to give yourself what you want. Grabbing a goody is easy, but  is there another feel good way to distract or reward yourself? Perhaps you could indulge in a warm bubble bath or take a walk or enjoy a funny movie with a friend. Make a list of little and big things you can do for yourself for each trigger you identified. If you are trying to stop emotional eating, food should not be a reward. Otherwise it will reinforce that programming.
  • Reduce your daily stress levels. This tip is really key for avoiding stress and anxiety eating. Barring hormonal issues, the more ease you feel, the less compelled you feel to mindlessly reach for food. Make it your mission to alleviate old emotional garbage. Emotional healing techniques can help. Learn strategies for dealing with present sources of long and short-term distress. Mindfulness meditation and physical exercise can also help. Specifically, know what your triggers are. Have a plan for neutralizing them, preferably before they set you off on a stress eating binge. 
  • Stress-relieving herbs can be important allies for calming emotional eating. For example, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) helps to manage cortisol while increasing energy and feelings of calm. Excess cortisol amps up your appetite for junk food and carbs, and leaves you feeling tired and anxious.
  • Saffron extract has been shown to reduce the snacking impulse in 8 weeks by 55%. It targets appetite dysregulation at the neurotransmitter level and inhibits the compulsion-reward cycle. The dosage for this study was 176.5 mg of 
  • proprietary saffron extract. (source: Life Extension magazine, August 2012)
  • Take control. You can reprogram your subconscious automatic responses and stop emotional eating. Commit to learning and practicing one or two techniques at a time. Make it as easy and stress free for yourself as you can. Sometimes, you just need to distract yourself for a minute or drink a glass of water to quell the emotional urge to eat. You do not have to continue your pattern of mindless stress eating.  A few weeks of consistent conditioning will weaken the connection between stress and eating.  Be persistent and consistent. Daily practice will pay off. So will hypnosis audios geared toward reprogramming your subconscious eating habits.
  • Be kind with yourself. You did not become an emotional eater overnight and have probably been one for years. When you slip up, notice what happened and begin again. Stay out of self-judgment and negative self-talk. Instead, speak to yourself in ways that encourage you to make better choices next time. If you are struggling, enlist the help of a wellness coach, practitioner, or therapist. They will give you guidance, support and accountability.

Are You Addicted to Food?

Food addiction is real. Feeling stressed can make your cravings for certain foods even stronger. Like any addiction, the foods you are hooked on have hijacked your brain's reward center and frontal cortex.

If you suspect food addiction as a cause of your stress eating and weight issues, check out The Hunger Fix by Dr. Pamela Peeke. You will learn about what happens in your body with addiction, the roots of your addictive eating, and create a detox and recovery plan you can live with. 

Overcoming emotional eating can be tricky, but it is certainly doable. Controlling stress eating is is vital to managing your weight. You can get this natural reaction under control by exploring your triggers, choosing other options, reducing stress, and persevering. Before you know it, absentmindedly stuffing a bagful of chips into your mouth will be a thing of the past.

Emotional Stress Eating page updated 05/2020

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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