Stress and Emotional Eating: Exploring Our Relationship with Food

Two parents and two children sit down at the table to enjoy a meal together, talking and smilingFor many of us, stress is a fundamental part of life. Perhaps we tend to overextend ourselves with work, social commitments, and our personal lives. Or maybe we never turn off our many devices, which can prevent us from being able to simply relax and enjoy each moment. As a result of this overstimulation, we often end up seeking out ways to self-soothe.

Food can be a source of comfort for many people. And while emotional eating can help us feel good in the moment, it can often have negative effects over time.

How can we know if we have an unhealthy relationship with food? Signs that indicate emotional eating may be having a negative impact can include:

  • Craving certain kinds of food. When we eat to comfort ourselves, the types of foods we choose are usually those that are the worst for us. People don’t often reach for nutritious foods like broccoli or spinach when trying to feel better. We are instead usually drawn to greasy, fried foods or sweet treats. These foods may make us feel better at first, but they do not provide us with any real nutritional value. What’s more, if we consistently choose them, we will be more likely to crave them when stressed. This can contribute to an unhealthy cycle.
  • Eating more than we should. When we eat for emotional reasons rather than to satisfy our hunger, we are more likely to miss the cues the body gives us when we’re full. Many people try to “fill” an inner sense of emptiness or numb out uncomfortable emotions through mindless eating. But this can frequently lead to overindulgence, as the food never truly fulfills the need we’re trying to meet.
  • Weight gain and health issues. Frequent overeating and choosing foods that have little nutritional value can lead to weight gain and medical issues, such as diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and heart problems, among others.
  • Yo-yo dieting and/or eating disorders. When people gain weight as a result of eating to self-soothe, they may then be more likely to go diet frequently or skip meals in order to lose weight. Others may start an unhealthy cycle of bingeing and purging in an attempt to avoid putting on weight. Both of these patterns can be extremely harmful to the body.
  • Low self-esteem. When we feel unable to cope with stress in ways that support physical and emotional well-being, emotional eating can negatively impact the way we view ourselves and our bodies. This added challenge can make the stress we are trying to cope with even more difficult to effectively address.

You don’t have to change all of your eating habits overnight. It’s often easier to begin by making small changes.

If you believe you might have an unhealthy relationship with food, you may find it helpful to try some of the following techniques:

  • Practice mindful eating. Being more aware of our eating habits can help us begin to eat healthier. If we eat in front of the computer or while watching TV or texting, we pay less attention to what we are doing and may end up eating more than we intend. By sitting down at a table and removing all distractions, we can begin to eat more mindfully. By truly tuning in to our bodies, we are better able to notice when we start to feel full.
  • Find more effective ways to deal with stress. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to remove all of your stress from your life. But you can help reduce its effects by choosing activities that help decrease stress levels. You might find it helpful to go out for a walk, practice yoga, meditate, or garden, for example. Other options include doing hobbies you enjoy, listening to calming music, spending time in nature, and practicing relaxation exercises.
  • Take small steps to start to eat healthier. You don’t have to change all of your eating habits overnight. It’s often easier to begin by making small changes. Try bringing more nutritious snacks to work, cutting back on processed and fast foods, eliminating or reducing your soda intake, and including more fruits and vegetables in your diet.
  • Seek help from a trained professional. If you feel as though you are struggling to control your eating habits or if you believe you may be struggling with an eating disorder, you may find it helpful to contact a therapist experienced in working with eating and food issues. The support of a compassionate therapist or counselor can help you take steps to get back on track.

If you believe your relationship with food has become unhealthy or you find yourself struggling to manage your eating habits, you may find some of the suggestions above to be helpful. Exploring them on your own, or with the help of a qualified professional, can be beneficial as you work to develop healthier eating habits.

Making one small change at a time can help you deal with stress in more effective and productive ways, and eating to self-soothe may become less of a habit as a result. Being able to eat better is not only likely to help us feel better physically, but can also lead to improvements in how we feel about ourselves!

Smith, M., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2018). Emotional eating: How to recognize and stop emotional and stress eating. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Wendy Salazar, MFT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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