asian man wearing an office shirt drinking water as he looks at his laptop with a bowl of uneaten food beside him

You just came back from lunch so you know you can’t be hungry. Yet, you are reaching for a bag of chips or a bar of chocolate as you brace yourself to clear another batch of emails or continue to work on that project which has been causing you stress and anxiety. That’s stress eating and it usually presents itself in a number of ways. These include:

  • craving for specific foods.

  • experiencing sudden and urgent hunger pangs.

  • eating to feel happy and when you’re happy, not stopping even when you’re full.

  • feeling guilty after eating.

Why Do We Stress Eat?

close up of a sugary snack next to a laptop

Stress eating is not an uncommon method of dealing with stressful situations. Most of us tend to overeat when we’re under a lot of pressure, because of our fight–or–flight response. When under long periods of stress, our bodies produce cortisol, a hunger-inducing hormone. This affects a person’s food preferences and causes our bodies to react favourably when we consume foods that are high in fat or sugar, or both. These foods, dubbed as comfort foods, do counteract stress in the short term, which explains why many of us form habitual cravings for them[1].

Related: 8 Quick Things You Can Do to De-Stress Right Now

The Problem with Stress Eating

Lady standing on a scale.

Stress eating may be a conscious or unconscious decision but it does pose several problems.

1. The Physical Health Concerns

Consuming unnecessary amounts of food that are high in fat and sugar will contribute to weight gain. This poses a risk of obesity and can lead to a myriad of chronic health illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

2. Emotional Concerns

Seeking comfort in food may give you short-term relief, but it does not actually solve your problems. Instead of looking for practical solutions to a stressful situation, your attention is focused on getting quick relief with food. These short-term relief measures may actually translate into a long-term emotional burden as unresolved stress can accumulate over time.

3. Mental Health Concerns

Eating to cope with stress and anxiety can easily become an unhealthy habit. The resulting weight gain might even cause negative body image issues and consequently lower one’s self-esteem. It may also lead to depression and negatively affect other areas of your life such as your health, interpersonal relationships and work performance.

If left unchecked, stress eating may progress to binge eating disorder. Binge eating is marked by regular episodes of eating significantly larger meals in a short amount of time with a clear lack of self-control and restraint during each episode.

While stress eating can provide relief in times of stress, it is neither a healthy nor a permanent solution to deal with a stressful situation. There are many other methods to help you combat stress and anxiety without sacrificing your physical and mental wellbeing.

Read on to find out how to beat stress eating.


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References

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. (Feb 2012). Why stress causes people to overeat. [Website]
    Retrieved February 2017 from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat

  2. Breeze, J. (n.d.). Can Stress Cause Weight Gain? [Website]
    Retrieved January 2017 from http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/stress-weight-gain#1

  3. WebMD. (n.d.). How to Stop Emotional Eating. [Website]
    Retrieved January 2017 from http://www.webmd.com/diet/stop-emotional-eating

  4. Kromberg, J. (2013, Sep 18). Emotional Eating? 5 Reasons You Can’t Stop. Psychology Today.
    Retrieved January 2017 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inside-out/201309/emotional-eating-5-reasons-you-can-t-stop

  5. Mayo Clinic. (2015, Oct 3). Tips to get your weight–loss efforts back on track [Website]
    Retrieved January 2017 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342?pg=2

  6. Pells, J. (n.d.). Anxiety & Overeating — What’s the Overlap? [Website]
    Retrieved February 2017 from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/co-occurring-dual-diagnosis/anxiety/anxiety-overeating-whats-the-overlap

  7. Scott, J. R. (2016, Feb 17). What is Stress Eating? [Website]
    Retrieved January 2017 from https://www.verywell.com/what-is-emotional-eating-3495967