Get practical tips and supportive advice on how to deal with stress eating for a healthier, happier lifestyle in our easy-to-follow guide.
Sometimes just hearing or reading the words “stress eating” or “emotional eating” may trigger our desire to eat.
Have you ever thought, “Why did I eat that?” or “Why do I keep doing this?” after overeating (again) after a hard day?
You are not alone.
I know because that’s happened to me. In fact, that used to be my pattern. Any time I felt any kind of stress, I ate (and ate and ate some more) until I reached 349 pounds.
But that’s not the end of my story, and it doesn’t have to be the end of yours either.
If you’ve been frustrated that diets and trying your hardest to just muster up more self-control haven’t cured your stress eating, keep reading.
I would love to show you a new way—not to just cope, but to experience peace instead of guilt in your stress.
As I write this article, I was just notified by my full-time job that my job was terminated. I was one of 75 positions cut. I was told on a Tuesday and was gone that Friday.
My stress is very high right now.
And, as you can imagine, everything in me wants to turn to food.
Understanding Stress Eating
What is stress eating?
It is simply eating food in response to feeling stressed (often junk food).
Stress eating is eating as a way to avoid or soothe uncomfortable emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness.
Many of us turn to food to solve problems, especially problems with experiencing negative emotions.
Stress eating happens when we are so overwhelmed and can’t even figure out another way to manage life. Food feels like the only way to even cope.
We eat to make us feel better—to fill emotional needs. Not only is this a temporary fix, but it usually leaves us feeling even worse.
Afterward, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but we also feel guilty for overeating.
I remember one such time when I was so angry that I was literally shaking.
I didn’t want to hurt the person I was angry with, but I didn’t know how to get rid of the anger, so I immediately went to food.
I sat with a big bowl of French fries and a chocolate bar.
They did calm me, and I learned that these foods would help me overcome anger, but it was only temporary.
I felt so guilty and had so much shame once the food and anger were gone.
The food didn’t get rid of the anger, but it did sufficiently provide a distraction for me.
I can tell countless stories of when I felt stress, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness.
I immediately turned to food to avoid the stressful times, and it helped provide the needed distraction.
The foods I chose were comfort foods for me:
- Salty bag of chips
- Crackers and cheese
We all have different comfort foods.
We can experience relief in our emotions when we eat, and we learn that this food leads to comfort from this emotion, and it becomes a habit.
We may start the habit because certain foods can bring comforting childhood memories back.
When I was young, my dad would always bring crackers and cheese into the living room in the evening as a snack. It was the only time we were allowed to eat in the living room.
When I needed comfort, I would grab a big plate of crackers and cheese and feel like I was sitting with my dad.
When crackers and cheese were giving me comfort, I didn’t realize that I needed God because I already had comfort. This is when I needed God the most.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. – John 14:27
How do we know if we are hungry physically or if we are “head hungry”?
Head hunger leads to emotional eating.
Physical hunger comes from the stomach.
When you evaluate your eating, you realize:
- You have not eaten for at least 3 hours.
- You could eat an apple and be happy to alleviate hunger.
- When you are full, you want to stop.
Emotional hunger does not come from the stomach. It is often referred to as head hunger.
- You crave a certain food or type of food, such as pizza, chocolate, chips, or donuts, and only those will do; an apple would not satisfy you.
- There is no full signal, so you just wish to eat until you are over the emotional time.
Fat and sugar-filled foods have an effect that dampens stress-related responses, stress hormones, and emotions.
These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress, and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.
Identifying Stress Eating Patterns
When you look at your eating patterns, consider:
- Are you stomach-hungry?
- Could you eat an apple and be satisfied?
If not, then you are probably stress eating. You may be stress eating if:
- You are craving a specific food or type of food (for example, stress food cravings are typically things like ice cream or french fries, not salads and apples)
- You are turning to food when experiencing
Many situations can trigger us to be emotional eaters.
Sometimes we stress out and eat out of habit. We have learned that certain foods comfort us when we experience negative emotions.
I never thought I had an issue with emotional eating.
Every time someone would ask about emotional or stress eating, I wouldn’t listen because I didn’t feel like that was true for me. I really believed I overate because I wanted the food.
This wasn’t true.
The other thing that helped me identify my own stress eating was seeking God’s wisdom.
As I asked God for help, He helped me see this unhealthy pattern.
- I ate chocolate and chips to escape work stress.
- I ate chocolate to keep my hands and mind busy.
- I would keep thinking of the deliciousness of chocolate and not have to think of being bored. In reality, I wasn’t really bored; I just didn’t want to do what was to be done.
This is all emotional and stressful eating.
Right now, after losing my job, I am very aware of my temptation to stress-eat. I know I’m craving unhealthy foods. I also know from experience that if I gave in and overate, it wouldn’t solve my stress.
Health Risks Associated with Stress Eating
When I was at 349 pounds, I was constantly turning to food. There were so many times that I used food for comfort, to relieve boredom, or simply out of habit.
Stress eating leads to weight gain, which can lead to many health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, sleep apnea, kidney disease, stroke, and others.
Strategies to Combat Stress Eating
This is where I get to share the good news with you. There is hope for a different way to respond to your stress. I know because I’m living it.
This week, in the midst of my stress, I did not stress-eat.
Instead of overeating to try to run away from my stress, I allowed myself to feel it, and I turned to God.
I turned with a silent, “Help me” as I was told the news that my job was gone. I later went into prayer on my knees.
It didn’t give me my job back, but I immediately felt peace. The problem wasn’t gone, but God was helping me through it. There is still so much uncertainty in my future, but I know God is right here beside me and will be every step of the way.
This is so different than when I turned to food in response to stressful situations. Food would give me a reprieve and a distraction, but then the problem was there, sometimes growing even bigger, and I always felt so alone.
I also found that I needed to go through my feelings instead of trying to numb them. Food gave me an outlet to avoid them until they passed, but it never helped me actually process them or the situation.
The stress always returned, more food was needed, and my weight continued to rise.
I now not only have peace, but I have lost 2 pounds this week alone because I didn’t turn to food. I have no guilt or shame for eating too much.
Going through the stages in Faithful Finish Lines 2.0, I learned the best way to deal with emotional eating is to use the 3 Ps:
- Pause – stop before I eat and ask myself, “Am I stomach-hungry?” and “Could I eat an apple and be satisfied?” If the answer is no, then,
- Pray – ask God for strength and peace to not give in to habit and food comfort, and then,
- Plan – plan a snack or treat so that it isn’t a habit; it is a preplanned, controlled bite.
There is so much more to that process to learn inside of the program.
Tracking your food in a food journal can also help.
Writing down what you eat can give you information to help you recognize your stress eating.
You can also find non-food ways to relieve and manage your stress.
- Do a crossword puzzle
- Go for a walk
- Call a friend or family member
- Take a hot bath
- Start a creative project
Have a list of your non-food ideas that you love to do handy. This way, you can have options for something other than eating to do in stressful times.
- I make yarn kit pillows.
- I read a book.
- I go for a walk (in nice weather).
- I play a candy crush type game on my tablet.
I do one or all (on some days) of these after I Pause, Pray, and Plan.
Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me. – Psalms 54: 4
Seeking Support and Professional Help
With chronic stress, the coping mechanism of turning to food can lead to an eating disorder.
If and when your stress eating overtakes your life and turns into binge eating, please seek professional help. There are residential and day therapy programs available; search for ones available in your area.
The most powerful helper is our Lord Jesus Christ. But sometimes we need a person with skin-on to also help
Ask your church to help you.
Ask your friends and family members to help you.
While Faithful Finish Lines 2.0 is not a therapy program, they have some great practical advice for only eating for stomach hunger and how to overcome emotional eating.
Our eating habits can turn into addictive behaviors, and we need to heal from this.
Ann Voskamp has written a wonderful article about healing Like an Addict that can help you heal from addictive behavior.
Lifestyle Changes to Manage Stress
Stress is a part of all of our lives. To manage this, a lifestyle change can produce great results.
There are some practical lifestyle changes you can make to manage your stress:
- Movement daily – a great way to do this in your own home is to view and do some of the exercise videos with Get Fit With Ashley. .
- Plan your daily meals ahead of time (could include meal prep).
- Have a sleep routine and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
- Draw close to God by studying scripture – Beth Moore has several blogs devoted to specific stressors that you may have experienced. One particular one that touched me was Scripture – Prayers for taking Courage and forsaking fear. This blog contains prayers to help guide you in praying scripture to gain courage and leave fear behind.
Embracing a Healthier You
It is important to understand that you are not alone. All of us deal with emotional or stressful eating. There are ways to combat this issue
- Pause – Ask yourself the question, “Could I eat an apple and be satisfied?”, “Has there been 3 or more hours since I last ate?” Know if you are eating because of negative emotion.
- Understand that stress eating will only cause you harm. The food is only a distraction and a temporary fix.
- Pray – pray for God’s help and strength.
- Plan – make a plan for when you will have a treat. This way, it is a controlled bite that is not a response to an emotion.
- Shift your focus to God, worship Him, and thank Him for everything He has done for you this day.
- Work on a project or use a relaxation technique such as reading and/or walking.
- Use any of the ideas in this article or create some of your own.
You’ve got this!
I can testify that turning to God works. I can only function right now after a layoff because God is giving me strength, and food is only fuel; God is wisdom, comfort, joy, and PEACE.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4: 16
More Posts To Help You Overcome Weight Gain:
Tammy Carnevale has been a member of Faithful Finish Lines 2.0 since January of 2020 and has lost 125 so far, bringing her starting weight of 349 pounds down to 224 pounds. She also manages her Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia with the tools she has learned in FFL program. Her passion is to use her writing and her own experience to help and support other women on their own weight loss journeys and managing chronic illness.