Building and maintaining a healthy relationship with food can be difficult for anyone. Eating is an important way we fuel and care for our bodies, as well as sustain our lives. However, we receive many messages from our social environment (and even our bodies) that may lead us to use food in less healthy and fulfilling ways, such as temporarily soothing or numbing negative emotions.
Emotional eating or stress eating is the practice of turning to food to manage stressful situations and relieve difficult emotions. Stress eating is not an eating disorder in and of itself; however, it is linked to eating disorder patterns and symptoms. To provide relief and promote well-being, a similar approach of care, support, and, when necessary, appropriate treatment through counseling either offline counseling or Online Counselling is often required.
Stress and Eating
Stress, both positive and negative, is ever-present in our lives. It manifests itself at work, in interactions with family and friends, during critical life transitions, and in response to challenges such as health conditions. Since 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted routines, introduced new stressors, and necessitated the development of new coping strategies.
Eating to relieve stress is a common and understandable practice. For example, many of us will reach for a sugary snack when we are tired or anxious, or we will use food to distract ourselves when we are faced with a difficult task. However, how do our minds and bodies associate stress with food? And what is the relationship between stress eating and having or developing an eating disorder?
Many people have developed habits and beliefs that associate eating with a sense of comfort. The concept of using food to alleviate stress and boost morale is widespread in society and is frequently introduced to us at a young age.
In addition to these social factors, the main biological drivers of stress-related eating are discussed.
- Although stress can initially suppress appetite due to the release of adrenaline, prolonged stress causes the release of the cortisol hormone, increasing appetite. Under persistent stress, cortisol levels can remain high.
- The body’s stress response appears to favor foods high in fat and sugar. Our stress-related eating habits can also become reinforcing, leading to cravings and increased consumption of high-fat, high-sugar foods.
Connection of Stress Eating with the Eating Disorder
The presence of worry and distress in relation to eating is one similarity between stress eating and eating disorders. Emotional eating, for example, may exacerbate a person’s shame, guilt, and self-esteem issues, potentially leading to an ongoing cycle of difficult emotions and unhealthy eating. Finally, stress eating is not a long-term coping strategy and may exacerbate stress.
In some cases, stress eating may indicate that a person is developing an eating disorder. People who struggle with stress eating, in particular, may be at risk for binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa, two conditions that include emotional and excessive eating as symptoms. An eating disorder is diagnosed using criteria from the DSM-5. As a result, stress eating does not necessarily indicate an eating disorder, and many people who engage in stress eating do not develop one.
Overall, regular stress eating is a less-than-ideal way to deal with daily stresses or cope with mental health issues. Those struggling with chronic stress eating should seek help to develop healthier and more effective coping strategies to protect their health and well-being. In general, if you’re having difficulty managing your behavior on your own, it’s a good indication that you should seek treatment, or talking to any Online Counsellor could be a good option. Feeling out of control when engaging in emotional eating is another important indicator that you may require additional assistance for example Online Counselling.
A Healthy Mindset for Eating and Stress Management
It is critical to develop alternative coping strategies and leverage social support systems in times of need to effectively manage stress and combat stress eating. It’s also critical to learn to distinguish between emotional and (true) physical hunger, as each has distinct physical and emotional signs and symptoms. This frequently entails practicing mindfulness and becoming more self-aware of one’s eating habits.
Here are some strategies for reducing stress and avoiding emotional eating:
- Yoga and meditation are examples of relaxation and mindfulness practices.
- Improve your overall diet by including more nutrient-dense foods and replacing stress-related food choices with healthier alternatives.
- Regular exercise and self-care routines that help reduce stress and meet your body’s needs should be implemented. Going for walks, getting enough sleep, and connecting with friends are all excellent places to begin.
- Document what and when you eat to learn about your food triggers. This can provide you with valuable insight into your eating habits and assist you in changing them for the better.