Tips for Battling Stress and Emotional Eating

March 12, 2021 6 min read

Tips for Battling Stress and Emotional Eating

Did you know that food is the most common way of coping with negative emotions?  Whether it is stress, anxiety, or depression - food provides a dopamine hit to the brain and we feel good.  Although that feeling wears off pretty quickly, and then we run into other feelings - guilt, shame, anger, frustration, etc. So this stress eating, or emotional eating, then creates a negative feedback loop.  

A big part of why we do it is because it is a distraction, but we also need to realize that it is our body’s innate chemical response.  So before we dive into tips, we want to help you understand the body’s stress response, and why although it may feel like our lack of willpower driving us towards the box of oreos, it is actually a somewhat automatic response by the body! 

The Body’s Response to Stress 

The stress response within the body is actually quite incredible.  The response starts in our brain and goes all the way to the adrenals, which are two little organs that sit on top of our kidneys.  This part of the body is known as our HPA axis where our hypothalamus acts as somewhat of an alarm system that is always looking for potential dangers.  When it senses one, it sends a signal to our pituitary gland, which then sends chemical signals to the adrenals to produce adrenaline and cortisol.  This production of stress hormones is to help us go into fight or flight mode when we need to evade or respond to a danger (this activates our sympathetic nervous system).  This response and the negative feedback loop is pictured below. 

When this response happens, there are a few different physical reactions the body initiates: 

  • The immune system gets ready to react to danger. 
  • Our blood pressure increases in case we are actually injured to keep our body from going into shock. 
  • The stress impedes hunger hormones, which regulate appetite, and this stress is supposed to diminish hunger initially to help pull energy away from digestion and towards survival.  

All of these things happen to help our body survive acute stress, but when this stress response becomes constant, that is when things go haywire and the negative feedback loop starts.  These are some things that will drive the hunger, the cravings, and sadly...oftentimes the weight gain. 

  • When we run the risk of this system being chronically activated, we become ‘tired and wired’, or in many cases develop anxiety. 
  • We start to develop a negative mindset.  When the system that keeps our ‘primed’ for danger is more sensitive, it will become wired to constantly be looking for danger or a ‘what’s going to happen next’ type thought process. 
  • Blood sugar is always stimulated, which can develop metabolic syndrome because we start to overproduce insulin to keep up with the blood sugar.  Yes - we can develop insulin resistance from pure stress! 
  • Cortisol is chronically elevated, which means weight gain - particularly around the middle. 
  • When we are stressed, we are actually burning up more energy, so our body starts to crave dense energy including fat, salt, and sugar.  
  • The brain has a hard time shutting off appetite long-term, so it actually starts to make us hungrier and starts to make these highly palatable foods taste even better than they may under less stress.  
  • We end up in a chronic cycle of fatigue, weight gain, cravings, etc. because high stress turns our body towards conserving energy, burning muscle, and conserving more body fat.  

So yes, stress can literally drive cravings, weight gain, emotional eating, and more. But how do we combat it?  What can we implement to shift these responses and major cravings that seem so hard to ignore? 

Tips to Battle Stress and Emotional Eating

1. Awareness and Identification 

We have to become more aware of why we stress eat, what triggers seem to cause it, and what foods we tend to gravitate towards.  Without this, it is nearly impossible to make lasting, positive changes.  In this process, we aren’t expecting change right away, we are simply becoming more aware and taking note of when you seem to find yourself stress eating.  We recommend actually getting a journal and taking note of the following things: 

  • What is the environment like?  
  • What caused the stress?  Be specific here!  
  • What foods are you reaching for most often?  
  • Did you eat fast or slow?  Did you taste the food at all?  
  • Were you sitting down when you ate or standing up?  
  • Was anyone else around? 
  • How did you feel afterwards? 

Once we start identifying why we cope with foods, and which foods seem to be the biggest triggers, we can start to remove triggers, and be more conscious in those situations.  Potentially even work to heal those situations and responses! 

2. Evaluate Physical vs. Emotional Hunger

We call this a mind and body scan around your hunger and emotions.  As coaches, we often see clients cave much easier to triggers, cravings, and certain foods when they are not routine with eating regularly and, in turn, are aware of their true physical hunger.  When we do not get adequate nourishment during the day in terms of enough calories and a proper balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, our body will search for that nourishment by driving cravings. It is often because our blood sugar is dropping low and the reason the body does this is to protect us and get blood sugar back up in a proper range.  So when we deprive the body of certain foods or calories, it will fight back by driving cravings for highly palatable, calorie dense foods - usually things like sugar, sweets, and salty treats (SOURCE).  

If you are experiencing strong cravings, some great questions to ask yourself are: 

  • When was the last time I ate a substantial meal? 
  • Am I bored?   
  • Is this physical hunger or emotional hunger?  This is how we decipher the two: 

Physical hunger

Emotional hunger

It develops slowly over time.

It comes about suddenly or abruptly.

You desire a variety of food groups.

You crave only certain foods.

You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating.

You may binge on food and not feel a sensation of fullness.

You have no negative feelings about eating.

You feel guilt or shame about eating.


It can be really helpful to start to decipher the two and remove guilt or shame from true hunger, and be able to fuel our bodies properly.  At the end of the day, our cravings and insatiable hunger for chocolate or sweets may simply be a result of us under-eating and needing to be aware of nourishing our bodies in the best way.  We see clients all the time finally start eating enough and eating regularly and their cravings all but go away!  

3. Try for Healthier Alternatives 

We love chocolate just as much as the next person, so we don’t want to fully deprive, because as we just learned, deprivation can lead to more cravings.  We did a great blog post on high protein treats HERE if you want to check it out, but we also encourage removing major trigger foods from the house and replacing them with less tempting treats.  For example, instead of having oreos in the house where you may eat a whole sleeve, try keeping a bar or two of 75% or higher dark chocolate!  Or instead of ordering a pizza, try getting ingredients to make one at home with the family.  There are tons of ways to enjoy the foods you love, but lower the calories and improve the quality of ingredients, which your body will thank you for! 

4. Implement Other Ways to Cope with Stress

If you find that certain experiences tend to trigger you frequently, or work has been driving cravings lately, try to find other ways to cope with stress and ‘distract yourself’ to an extent with more positive or productive tasks.  Some examples of this include: 

  • Call a friend to talk through things with.
  • Journal on your emotions to dive into them and face what is really driving your stress.
  • Start a DIY project or clean a room in the house! 
  • Go for a walk or get in a workout.
  • Meditate or simply stop and take 10 big deep breaths. 
  • Make a task list of little things you want to get done for when you get stressed (i.e. order your kid some new clothes, run errands, mail in bills, browse amazon, etc). 

We know that emotional eating can be daunting and seem almost impossible to tackle, but when we really get down to the root cause of it, many individuals realize the solution is quite simple.  We may just need a bit more nourishment and food, or we may need to become more aware of our surroundings, triggers, and ways of coping.  Once we develop this awareness, we can start to live life again free from feeling like we are shackled by our cravings and feelings around food! 

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