Stop Stress Eating and Start Eating Freely
Do you need to stop stress eating?
Stress eating is a problem most experience, including me. And while stress eating is a year-round problem, it’s prevalent during the holiday season.
You know. Eating more chocolate from your coworker’s desk than usual. Drinking an extra glass of wine on Saturday night. Indulging in sweets to reward yourself for the holiday shopping, planning and cooking.
Food is a cure for all the holiday stress.
Eating to cure stress can work in the short term. In the long term, it causes more stress and problems. Extra food during the holidays turns into stress about health, self-esteem, body image and willpower.
I know stress eating all too well. I was obese in part due to stress eating. Fortunately, I learned how to stop stress eating.
What is emotional eating (aka stress eating)?
What is emotional eating? I define stress eating differently from others. I see stress eating and emotional eating as the same. When I use emotional eating in one sentence and stress eating in the next, I’m talking about the same idea.
Emotional/Stress Eating Definition
What is stress eating? Stress eating is eating for emotional purposes. It’s usually because we can’t process or handle all the emotions we feel so we use food as an outlet. Emotional eating also connects us with other people.
In the past, I ate when I was bored or stressed. My brain was craving dopamine, the happy hormone. The easiest way for me to get my dopamine release was through food.
In fact, eating is the easiest way for most people to feel pleasure. The more calorically dense food is, the more dopamine your brain releases. In America, calorically dense foods are everywhere. The standard convenience store is filled with calorie-packed food. Dopamine boosts are less than a dollar away.
Why do people emotionally eat?
Why do people emotionally eat or eat from stress?
We stress eat because it’s the easiest way to make ourselves happy and calm down.
We may use emotional eating to enhance the highs we experience. If you’re already having a great time, a piece of cake will make you feel better. It’s also common to eat out of boredom.
I’m guilty of all three. When I was bored, I ate. I ate when I was sad, stressed and worried. Celebrations revolved around eating, too.
Eating was a way for me to fill up my time. It was an antidote to my lack of friends. Food enhanced the times I enjoyed.
Emotional eating causes
While most are guilty of emotional eating, females stress eat more than males. Two leading reasons are pop culture and biology.
Emotional eating and pop culture
Culture plays a key role in what’s socially acceptable, even eating habits.
Countless rom-com movies picture a heartbroken young women indulging in chocolate or ice cream. Eating because of sadness is normalized for women. It’s normal because you’re sad. Nobody cares if you’re hungry.
Yet I’ve never seen a man portrayed in a movie this way. Men don’t cry and eat chocolate after breakups. They find a strip club to celebrate.
Stress eating and biology
This normalization of the two genders flows into the next reason: biology. Pop culture spreads the stereotypes, but they stem from biology.
Men’s brains are wired differently than women’s. When a man sees a person he’s attracted to, he’ll likely imagine having sex. When a woman sees the same, she’ll think they’re attractive. Women don’t immediately think about sex, though.
In general, men’s brains seek dopamine through sex. Women’s brains seek dopamine through food. That makes emotional and stress eating an uphill battle for women.
Food is all around us. And it’s not only women who eat to deal with emotions. Rising obesity rates indicate men do it, too.
Another reason people can’t stop stress eating is because junk food is everywhere. Emotional eating is too easy.
It’s not only pop culture telling us stress eating is a good way to express our emotions. It’s the way we’re raised. Our family connected around the kitchen table. Every celebration included a heaping piece of cake. I have my condolences by cooking when friends and family lost loved ones.
Help for emotional (over)eating
Despite the struggle, it’s possible to stop stress eating. Emotional eating isn’t inevitable for women. I’m a woman who had a serious problem with emotional eating. I used to be obese! Now I’m healthy, lean and confident through small changes I’ve made to my lifestyle.
Changes to my diet, mindset and lifestyle were important. But what impacted my life the most was changing my diet. My body required a reboot.
Contrary to what I craved, I ate foods with low caloric density. I filled myself up with fruits, non-starchy vegetables and legumes. I ate these foods because they’re less calorically dense than other foods.
Can you think of anybody who’s ever gained weight eating salad? I can’t. You can eat vegetables until you’re stuffed while staying lean and vibrant.
Not all vegetables are ideal when you’re dealing with stress eating. You want to focus on eating non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables have the least amount of calories and the most nutrition.
Examples of fresh, non-starchy vegetables you can indulge in:
- Bok choy
- Brussel sprouts
- … and more
You can also eat as much as you wish of the following foods. They’re technically fruit, but they’re flavored as vegetables in cooking.
- Bell peppers
- … and more
The above lists are not all-inclusive. There are countless fruits and vegetables you can eat to your heart’s desire.
Remember to keep the vegetables fresh and non-starchy. Avoid dried vegetables (e.g. kale chips) and vegetables cooked with oil, butter, lard, sugar and salt.
No, fruit is not unhealthy. Fruit is nature’s dessert. You’re supposed to love fruit and you can eat as much fruit as you want. Fruit is full of nutrition without being full of calories.
Examples of fresh fruits you can eat without limitation:
- …and more
Like vegetables, focus on eating fresh, juicy fruits. Part of the reason they fill you up is because they’re packed with water and fiber. Those important nutrients are removed when fruits are cooked, juiced and dehydrated. Fiber and water keep you full, satisfied and healthy.
The last category of foods you should focus on eating is legumes. Examples of legumes are lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas and soybeans. They’re a great way to eat enough calories and feel satisfied. Legumes are packed with protein, especially lentils.
Examples of legumes to fill up on:
- Black beans
- Blue peas
- Brown lentils
- Kidney beans
- French green lentils
- Sugar snap peas
- Haricot verts
- Yellow split peas
- …and more
Unlike fruits and vegetables, you can cook legumes before you eat them. Tofu and soy milk have nutrients (e.g. fiber, carbohydrates) removed, so they don’t count as whole legumes.
What about the other foods?
Right now you might be thinking, “Wait, I can only eat fruits, vegetables and legumes? That doesn’t sound appetizing.”
I’m not saying to only eat fruits, vegetables and legumes. Rather, I recommend making them the stars of your meals. You can still have the other foods, but these three categories should make up the majority of your diet.
You can still include the following foods in lesser amounts:
Starchy vegetables are usually tuberous, root vegetables. The most familiar one is the white potato. Though sweet potatoes are starchy vegetables, they’re nutritious enough to eat without limit.
There are many different types of grains, so I won’t put an exhaustive list here. Grains and pseudo grains commonly eaten include:
Nuts and seeds are some of the most calorically dense whole plant foods. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them. You must watch how much you eat.
I was afraid of nuts and seeds when I was trying to lose weight. I believed eating as little fat as possible was the key to lose fat. Now I realize some nuts and seeds can help me lose weight. Eating them triggers dopamine receptors in our brain because they have more calories than other plant foods. Since they’re high fat, they help fill you up and keep you full.
Examples of nuts and seeds:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
Peanuts are actually legumes. However, they’re classified with the nuts because of their fat content. Fatty avocados (a fruit) are also in this category.
Crushed nuts and seeds in the form of spreads are okay as long as you don’t overdo it. Like fruit juice, nut/seed milks have had the fiber removed, so I don’t recommend them.
It might seem limiting and boring to eat this way at first. Once you discover how many combinations are possible, you’ll love your newfound freedom. You won’t worry about overeating or gaining weight. You won’t feel guilty.
Here are some examples of recipes you can make featuring vegetables, fruits and legumes:
- Warm Asian Bok Choy and Mushroom Salad Recipe
- Easy Mexican Black Beans
- Guilt-Free Chocolate Pudding
- Thankful Onion and Sweet Potato Pie
- Mushroom and Pinto Bean Burgers
- Gluten Free Flatbread with Parsley
- Best Sweet and Spicy Quinoa Chili
- Saucy Vegetable and Chickpea Curry
- Authentic Ooey Gooey Refried Beans
- Loaded Lasagna
How to overcome emotional eating forever in 3 steps
The groundbreaking lesson I learned was how to change my mindset and eating habits. I recommend watching this insightful TED talk. It made me reconsider my cravings and empower myself.
Accept yourself the way you are
I realized I was fighting with myself and I needed to stop. The household and culture I grew up in encouraged emotional eating. My habits reinforced stress eating. Stress eating and emotional eating were part of my personality. My relationship with food improved when I accepted it.
I needed to admit to my food cravings. First, I took a step back from living in the moment (and indulging) and recognized my desire to eat. I stopped thinking of the desire as “bad” and accepted it was there. I labeled the feeling but didn’t judge myself for feeling it.
This is how I stopped fighting myself. I stopped regarding myself, my feelings, my cravings and my (lack of) willpower as the enemies. This mentality increased my emotions and stress. Hating myself for having these feelings restarted the vicious cycle.
Manipulate your cravings
This is the part where I incorporated the foods outlined above. Instead of eating calorically dense food, I savored fruits, vegetables and legumes. Even if I had a craving to overeat, the food I ate wouldn’t cause weight gain or make me feel shameful afterward.
Eat bananas or dates if you have a craving to eat. There will come a point where you’re so full you couldn’t eat any more.
Find another outlet for stress
This is the last step. To be honest, I haven’t completed this step myself. There are times when I want to make myself feel better by eating a banana slathered with peanut butter. Finding ways other than eating to help you handle your emotions and stress is the ultimate goal.
Intimate stimulation (i.e. sex) and physical activity are the best ways to release endorphins and feel-good hormones into your brain. Or find a hobby you enjoy. Why not take up knitting, photography, reading, writing or extreme ironing? Hopefully you can rewire your brain to cope with strong emotions without food.
Now you know how to stop stress eating
Being an emotional eater is similar to addition. Though I’ve learned how to stop stress eating from affecting my health and happiness, it’s still part of me. There are still days when I engage in emotional overeating. There are times when I want to comfort myself with favorite foods and warm beverages.
When I allow myself to eat at those times, I don’t guilty because I’m eating nutritious food. When I was young and obese, I ate cookie dough and cheese to comfort myself. Now I want to eat warm sweet potatoes, crunchy apples or a sweet banana topped with peanut butter.
The two most life-changing lessons I’ve learned were:
- How to stop fighting my cravings and myself. I accepted cravings and stopped viewing them as evil.
- How to harness my cravings to learn how to enjoy eating healthy food.