What is stress eating and how to avoid it?

What is stress and emotional eating? How are they connected?

As a registered dietitian, I am pretty used to friends and people around me telling me about the latest fad diet or food craze that they have taken part in, fueled by media influence that has convinced them that it would help them reach their nutrition goals.

And sometimes, (not always), I manage to calmly explain why this “diet prison” is not as great as it may seem. This can be much more difficult to explain to a family member or someone whom you are particularly close with.

It all started with a cake. Due to special circumstances, a beautiful yellow cake with vanilla frosting sat under the glass dome on the kitchen counter.

A family member said that “we should cut it up, and take it to work/friends so that we didn’t have it in the house anymore.”

I knew this comment was made with only one thought in mind. They looked at me seriously and said, “the best way to deal with temptation is to not present yourself with it.”

That statement made me freeze for a second.

And I realized all the truth behind that statement. Because having a piece of cake, isn’t always as simple as having a piece of cake. That piece of cake was a security blanket, a fuzzy teddy bear, and a coping mechanism for dealing with high emotions and stressful environments for this family member. And I remember that for this family member in the past, calorie counting and point watching mattered. And even further into the past when a cake in the kitchen wouldn’t mean “cut it up and give it away”, but rather, let us all sit down and enjoy it together.”

So the real question here was, how can I help my family member avoid stress eating or emotional eating while teaching them to enjoy food again? How could I make them realize that food was not the enemy nor was it the solution to their stress and uncomfortable emotions? So I came up with some tips! And I hope that these are as helpful to you as they were to my family.

But before I go into tips to help you decrease your emotional eating, it is important to remember a few things.  First of all, food is not the enemy.  Food is a basic pleasure in life and there is no need to be fearful of food.  Food does not need to have so much power over you.  If you are stressing about food and having so much life energy sucked up by stressing about food, I would encourage you to seek help from an expert who can help you put the joy back into food.

The intention of this blog is to help you become more aware of how food can be a coping mechanism.  Like most coping mechanisms, they are there for a good reason.  Instead, we would like to encourage you to look at the role food plays in your life and help you understand that food does bring joy, connection and pleasure into life.  There is no reason to eat only when you are hungry and stop when you are full EVERY single time.  I would definitely want you to enjoy cake at your best friend’s birthday because you are celebrating together.  And, I certainly would not want you to go home and stress about eating cake.  That being said, here are some ways to add some balance into your life so that emotional eating as a way to decrease stress is not driving your eating.

cake how to avoid stress eating

How to avoid stress eating and emotional eating

1. Practice self-care EVERYDAY.

  • By taking time out of your busy and stressful life to do nothing more than take care of yourself, you are making your well being a priority. If this seems like a stressful task in itself, start small!
    • Eat your lunch, uninterrupted, outside or in a calm place.
    • Journal for five minutes
    • On the weekends or on days off, kick it up a notch.
    • Take a couple hours for a date with a friend or go for a walk by yourself in alone time is what you need. These small acts with add up to a more relaxed, less stressed you. Or try some yoga?


2. Make sure you are eating throughout the day to avoid stress and emotional eating.

By having consistent meals throughout the day, you can be sure that you are being nourished and well fed. When your brain and body has enough energy, the tasks that seem stressful or daunting may become more manageable. Eating often throughout the day will also help you to avoid ravenous hunger at night time and after work.

Combinations of carbs, protein, and fat will help keep you feeling satisfied at meal time. Incorporate colorful veggies in different ways for filling fiber and phytonutrients. Sprinkle broccoli with sesame seeds or toss julienned vegetables in oil and specialty vinegars to make them more interesting!

Don’t forget snacks. Try roasted chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or other healthy snack recipes on our blog.

roasted chickpeas

3. Make an effort to engage in joyful movement to decrease stress and emotional eating

Exercise releases endorphins and other feel good hormones that can help to melt away stress and anxiety. But the key to cashing in on these feel good hormones is exercising in a way that, well, feels good! Don’t go for a run just because it is “good for you”. If you don’t enjoy the movement you are doing, it will be harder to reap the benefits.


4. Don’t forget to incorporate fun food.

Restricting and swearing off all of your favorite foods will ultimately make eating an unenjoyable experience in itself. Just another stressor in your life! Fun foods in moderating will bring enjoyment into eating and help you avoid binging later on down the road. Chocolate is one of my favorite fun foods! I like to enjoy it with berries for a different flavor/texture, or a spoonful of peanut butter!

5. Make a follow-up with your Registered Dietitian.

Have you ever said to yourself “I know what I need to do, I just need to do it.” Well that is exactly what your dietitian in for. Their minds are loaded with tips and tricks to make eating enjoyable and stress free! They can help you to meal plan, budget, and fight chronic disease. Sound similar to your nutrition goals?

The struggles that my family member faces and their obscured thoughts about food fuels my passion and has made my path towards becoming a Registered Dietitian clearer. Showing the world that food should be enjoyed and not stressed about is what I want to do. Breaking the dieting cycle, busting down the bars that stand between you and living joyfully and loving yourself is what I want to help empower people to do.

Resources for emotional eating:

And thankfully there is hope and resources. Our REBEL dietitians are here to help. In addition to our Taste the Sweet Rebellion workbook is here to help you break free from the dieting prison. We now have a new book to help you better nourish yourself aptly called: Nourish: 10 ingredients to happy, healthy eating.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one might be struggling with binge eating disorder, take a look at this blog for more information.

To schedule a consultation, email us at admin@rbitzer.com or call us at 301-474-2499.

Blog reviewed and updated March 2020.

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