Home Debunking The Myths Telling A Tale of Stress and Emotional Eating

Telling A Tale of Stress and Emotional Eating

by Erika Nicole Kendall

cavemanLet me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.

See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.

One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.

Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.

Compare this to emotional eating. The body’s reaction doesn’t change no matter what variables you swap out. Regardless if the stress comes from traffic, bad work day, or family problems… the body’s reaction to stress has not evolved as fast as society has. Now, we can get food within ten minutes if we drive or own a microwave. So presuming our body believes that stress is caused by a “famine on the way,” then it’s going to trigger feelings to make you go hunt! Our bodies just don’t know how easy it is to get food just yet. It hasn’t caught up.

stressThis is what compels us to believe that emotional eating is the answer.

Emotional eating is defined as eating for a purpose other than curing hunger. If you’re eating for that gooey “Mmmmm” feeling, then yes – chances are, you might be emotionally eating. Approximately 75% of all overeating is attributed to emotional eating.

Because our bodies always provide this same reaction to food in a time of stress, our body’s reward system tells us that it makes sense to eat when stressed. It’s the fastest way to rid ourselves of this negative emotion, right? Stressed out about money and bills? You’re probably going to find the cheapest and quickest way to stick something in your mouth to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. For some of us, that means we’ll be Dollar Menunaires for an hour. For some of us, that means we’ll be hittin’ up the Edy’s or Blue Bell. For others, we’ll be needing peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies.

I remember being told yearrrrrs ago by my sorority sister who was a psych professional that I really needed to focus on developing better coping skills. That I needed to find proper outlets for relieving my stress as opposed to relying on external things to relieve internal stresses. She told me that finding a way to better cope would help me feel liberated from this narrow path I had set myself on with how to make myself feel better. Using food as my only means of making myself feel better – inside AND outside of my pregnancy – is a big reason behind why I gained so much to begin with.

So, what can we do to win the struggle with our body’s natural response to stress?

  • We can make conscious efforts to take better care of ourselves. Try to avoid allowing stressors to pile up on you. Do you often run into the same types of problems? Start paying attention to yourself! No more auto pilot. Notice when the same things pop up and cause you stress, and start figuring out better ways to manage that. Decreasing the stress in your life decreases the opportunity to emotionally eat.
  • Make emotional eating more difficult. I stopped carrying cash… then I stopped carrying my wallet. Is that extreme? Very. I also had an extreme case of emotional eating. I ate to feel fulfilled. I wasn’t fulfilled. I was just… full. If traffic stresses you out so you grab some McDonalds on the ride (thus making traffic worse – I see you eating your Big Mac instead of paying attention to the stoplight), then find a stress-free route. One that doesn’t have a fast food joint on the way that’ll compel you to indulge.
  • Give yourself a break. Give yourself a reward that is more lasting than the temporary satisfaction of a chocolate chip cookie. Try to budget a liiiiiittle time for relaxation. I give myself time for yoga every single day. The way I push my body to the limits allows me to relieve stress, and I come out of it feeling light as a feather with a new perspective on how to tackle whatever was originally stressing me.
  • Awareness is key – if being at your mother-in-law’s house is a stressor that makes you feel like you have to eat in order to cope… be aware of how that triggers you. Prepare yourself with healthier comforting foods. Luckily for me, I went from Verona cookies to goldfish crackers to tea. Yes. Tea. As much as I love my mother, I fear that she might send me back to the Verona cookies, though. Ha! (I only say that because I know she reads the site. :))
  • Go shoot something. I’m only mildly joking, here. I say this on twitter all the time… I get stressed out? I grab Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and do a few missions.
  • If you know you’re stressed, make food your last resort. Turn on a good tear-jerker movie. Hit the sidewalk and take a stroll (or a jog.) Take up kickboxing. Take a hot shower.
  • Try a nap instead. If you’re prone to wanting something warm before bed, get into a nice soothing tea. I have boxessssss of tea in the cabinet. No shame in my game.
  • Seek help. Remember, even though she was my friend, I had to have a psychiatric professional shine a little light for me to help guide me on my path. I’m a big believer in support systems and if it takes adding a little help to the team to get you on the path to better help, then that’s what’s best.

How does the story end? Welllll… more on that later. (Something’s gotta keep you on the edge of your seat until next time, right? Right?!)

What are your thoughts? How does emotional eating affect you? Did you win the battle against emotional eating? How do you shift your focus away from food? Let’s talk!

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elledub December 18, 2009 - 12:59 PM

Thank you so much for this post….A lot of my weight gain was associated with emotional eating, particularly in that transition period between college and “the real world.”

When I started hitting the gym regularly and finding other things to enjoy outside of food, it made a difference (and still does) 🙂


Monica June 2, 2013 - 2:31 AM

This is going to be a little long. As of late, I’ve been feeling that my eating is more about emotional. There are times when I am not that hungry (if at all), but feel a certain obligation to eat. While my life isn’t that bad, there are some issues – I am 48, recently had a hysterectomy, mother to 3 young adult sons whom I still support in one way or another. I have a good job but was recently put in a department where it isn’t a good fit, and to top it off I am going to school. I am divorced and not dating so you can see how full my plate is. My confidence isn’t that great right now and feels like its at its lowest.

I have a habit of downplaying things including my feelings, and I think this is were the eating comes in. It does give me that “ummm” moment but most of the time I don’t stop when comfortably full. Its those portions, eating later than I should and not be as active as I should.

In my mind, I see who I’d like to be…..a size 12/14, healthy and fit but having a hard time initiating the motivation to get going.

Ann April 11, 2010 - 8:08 AM

It took me a long time to realize that I am an emotional eater, especially later at night. I’m like a little kid – eating to stay up so I don’t have to go to bed! Craziness! I recognize it now and try to curb it. I started drinking tea a few hours before bed to get settled and full. I also realize it’s needing the mindless motions while sitting idle in front of the TV. Now that I’m aware I do my best to stop and replace with something else, or just go to sleep.

Thanks for your posts!

Alissa June 8, 2010 - 2:39 PM

My job is my stressor & I realized that a couple weeks ago when I just ate to eat. How can I curb that?

Erika June 8, 2010 - 3:14 PM

You’ve got to find a release – a way to relieve your stress! Anything from a regular yoga class, kickboxing, knitting, beading, baking, walking… whatever it could possibly be… just find a way to relax that does NOT involve food, and you will start to feel not only empowered, but you’ll start to look forward to your new hobby. I promise!

Erika Miley July 25, 2010 - 3:01 PM

I loved this post. I think this is such an important skill. I do the yoga but I am now going to find time everyday since you mentioned it! De-cluttering is what I have been calling this lately. Getting rid of even the little things that cause stress; the load of laundry that has been sitting on the floor for two days 😉 anything like that can be causing that stress.

I have been working to find all of it and squish it! lol

MOnika August 4, 2010 - 4:09 AM

This is the best post about emeotional eating I have ever ead. Finally, finally my emotional eating habits makes sense. This feels like tons are falling off my shoulders. Thank you so much, Erika!

Lisa August 19, 2010 - 6:03 PM

Hi, Erika!!!

The more I am on this site, the more helpful tips I get. I LOVE knitting, but I guess I get lazy and take the path of least resistance….FOOD!!! LOL.

I will put more effort in planning a “way of escape” when the stressors of life come at me….I guess it’s sort of like planning an escape route “in case of fire”. You have your diagram, map, signs, and even drills. Maybe I should translate that same plan over to my emotional life. Prayerfully create my “escape route”. 🙂

Thank you!!!

Kandace September 26, 2010 - 7:49 PM

Thank you

LaShawn Wilburn September 27, 2010 - 2:14 AM

Very good article! I know now why I have a made dash for McDonalds after work now! I make the first turn onto the main street and there it is conveniently on the right side of the street! I don’t have to cross traffic or the double yellow line I can just drive right up! An ice cream sunday with hot fudge gets me through traffic and decompresses me after a stressful day at work and keeps me company in the car while I sit in bumper to bumper traffic.

There is a less stressful route but it takes me longer to get home, 45 mins more. I’m going to try making some warm cammomile tea to drive home with and see how that works!!! Thank uou so much for all the incite and for helping me to fess up to where my extra calories are coming from! Please keep doing what you’re doing you help us so much!

Stacey May 23, 2011 - 1:13 PM

Hello. My name is Stacey and I am an emotional eater. I have tried to help my self by having only (okay mostly) 100 calorie snack packs around so if I get the crazy emotional urge to have something that was not quite in the plan for the day… its not going to derail me (too) much.

Marion@affectionforfitness June 20, 2011 - 7:45 AM

Great post! This topic has definitely been on my mind a lot lately. In fact, I’m going to be writing one post about self-soothing without food each week, starting this week. So if you’re interested, pop over to my blog sometime!

🙂 Marion

Kim June 26, 2011 - 7:37 PM

This is a great post! I know I’m a severe emotional eater and part of the reason is that I don’t build any time into my schedule for relaxation/enjoyment . . . but if I did that I think I would be far more content and have less need to overeat!

DeLaunte Crawford September 5, 2011 - 9:34 AM

I have been on a roll, living life I was at -24.4 Friday my husband took me to lunch. We were having casual conversation, turned into a huge disagreement. He has been acting distant and tempermental all weekend. Monday morning +2 pounds. I needed to read this today!

HaitianPhoenix October 30, 2011 - 3:01 PM

Thank you for this. Because I have been paying attention to my moods, triggers and emotions, to truly see how emotional eating affects me. Now it’s time for the work and meditation to work through my stressors!

Miss V December 21, 2011 - 1:52 AM

Lately I’ve realized that I’m an emotional eater. I will do as you suggested, and start watching for stressors, and look for better ways to get through it instead of eating.

In addition to weight loss, it’ll DEFINITELY have a positive impact on my wallet.

Thanks so much!!

Kyna January 5, 2012 - 11:58 AM

Wonderful and very informative! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Tamala April 21, 2012 - 11:46 AM

Thanks for the post. I can relate to stress eating at work. I have gotten better at this because I use a pictures of myself to remind me of the extra calories that I will put on in the belly area if I eat under stress.

Rai Camille July 14, 2012 - 9:16 PM

My job as an LMSW is a major stressor, I’m constantly on the go and have a part-time gig. When I come home I want to relax, but I’m up writing notes or Clinical Treatment plans…usually with Hagen Daz Java Chip ice cream by my side. I want to exercise – not motivated and don’t want to deal with the hair thing…#don’tjudgeme

DeMarra August 26, 2012 - 6:33 PM

I so needed this!! I had a rough rough work week last week and even with all the exercise and eating well I did the entire week, by the time Saturday came I just threw all my hard work away by emotionally eating! These techniques will surely help me get through the next time and I know for sure that there will be a next time! Thanks again!

melorie November 17, 2012 - 10:45 AM

You hit the nail on the head. I have known this about myself for some time now. Have recently made the choice to fight it. I don’t keep unhealthy foods at home anymore. Since my job is emotionally so stressful I don’t take cash or credit/debit cards to work. That way I can’t order out or stop and get food.

debby November 17, 2012 - 3:37 PM

At 60, and having some other health factors working 2 part-time jobs and having no time for myself my only stress relief was eating. I too would take a drive thru route home. I have 2 grandsons that I plan on seeing graduate college and perhaps even a great grandchild before the Lord calls me. I appreciate your article and will start to find ways to cut the emotional eating.

I will continue to follow this website as it does provide some answers and links 2 ways off helping me news weight

Fatimah January 13, 2013 - 8:54 AM

I absolutely love this post. I know that my unhealthy eating habits are from emotional eating. I am going to try some of these things to change my train of thought. Thanks for sharing. By the way keep up the good work, you look amazing. This is encouraging for people like myself.

Arrianna March 3, 2013 - 4:17 PM

I appreciate this piece. As someone who has struggled w/ ED, I’ve learned that the best way to curb emotional eating (for me) is to (1) don’t carry cash (2) know your triggers (3) eat whole foods that keep your nourished and full (4) don’t have (processed) snack foods nearby. (5) get plenty of sleep. Sleep debt = more stress, more hunger, more stress. Also: (6) drink plenty of water.

Ashairah July 3, 2013 - 4:45 AM

I believe I’m an emotional eater, I eat out of boredom and loneliness. I’ll just be sitting there watching TV and decide to go get something to eat and then 15 minutes later go get something else to eat and then maybe hour later go get something else to eat. How can I change that what can I replace it with? I’m a single mother of two boys and I’m just ready to get the extra pounds behind me. I’m 5’3 and I weight 180

Erika Nicole Kendall July 3, 2013 - 11:47 PM
Erika Nicole Kendall July 7, 2013 - 10:34 PM
Sarah November 20, 2013 - 2:14 PM

I hear ya. I gained almost 45 pounds in one year when my family left to live in another state for a year. I realized that my willpower to say no to eating out and spending money was gone… My doctor recommended doing a pre-packaged food program like NS, JC, etc…

I did and while I’ve been on the pre-packaged foods I’ve had more time to deal with the emotional stuff while NOT gaining weight. It’s given me time to work on drinking water, going to the gym, and getting help professionally.

Best of Luck to everyone who has the same struggles!

Dee June 2, 2015 - 3:21 AM

thanks Erika for sharing . I grew up with little freedoms. Eating was the only thing I was free to do.

actually I was thinking is eating an only expression of freedom for some people – especially those of slavery heritage.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 2, 2015 - 9:30 PM

I don’t think it’s the “only” one, but I DO think it is the one with the quickest and most easily accessible incentive (and, by extension, incentive salience), thereby solidifying the cycle even faster and making the connection even stronger every time a person engages it.

Dee June 12, 2016 - 12:33 AM

Came across this just now and it really spoke to me. This will be pretty long but I do know that I tend to eat a lot when I feel very stressed out. After spending years struggling with my weight, I finally lost around 30 lbs between 2012 and 2013. I was the smallest I had ever been – size 4/6 on top, size 8/10 on bottom (I’m just always going to have big hips ha.) And then, by 2014, trauma, after trauma, after trauma occurred. I ended up moving back home, broke, friendless, dateless, and feeling alone and depressed. I ended up gaining 60 lbs in a year, and now I’m the biggest I have EVER been, more than 200 lbs.

I feel like such a failure because at one point I didn’t necessarily “have it all” but I felt like I was on a good path. I had my own apartment, I was healthy and slim, I had friends, I went on dates, and I finally felt like I looked ok. And now I’m trying to get back to that place and it feels insurmountable. I still don’t have my own place (which is its own set of constant stressors) and so I can’t really cook the way I’d like to. I also have a stressful job and it’s so hard to not get caught up in eating more and drinking more just to feel level.

I’m going to a gym now and trying my best to eat healthier and make smarter choices but it’s really hard. And it’s hard not to feel disappointed in myself because I wasn’t able to maintain that initial weight loss. It does give me some kind of hope that you were able to turn things around for yourself and become healthy and happy in the process. I just hope I can do the same and stop being an emotional eater.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 12, 2016 - 4:47 PM

Long comments are welcome here. *big hug*

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