We all reach for that doughnut or glass of wine if we’re particularly having a bad day, but experts say when stress eating becomes a habit, it could potentially be harmful.
Stress eating is one type of way to emotionally eat, says registered psychotherapist Natalie Shay of Toronto. Other types of emotional eating are when you eat if you’re angry, sad, bored or tired.
Tzabia Siegel, a clinical nutritionist and life coach based in Toronto, says although they could be used interchangeably, stress eating and emotional eating are different.
“You can never separate stress and emotional eating entirely,” she says. “Emotions are leading to the stress and when we talk about stress in the body, it doesn’t matter if it’s coming from emotions or infection or pollution or hard relationships.”
And when someone doesn’t have a good grasp on why they eat what they eat, it can lead to overeating, binge eating or other eating disorders. Siegel says one of the first things people who emotionally eat a lot can do is understand the difference between physical and psychological hunger.
“For physical hunger, our body needs fuel and psychological hunger is when something else is triggering it. Until they understand what physical hunger is, they can’t identify psychological hunger.”
The warning signs
Shay says there are several warning signs of emotional eating people need to be aware of.
1) When you turn to food to manage emotions: This is when you seek comfort in food, so much so that it makes you feel better and helps ease whatever pain you are going through.
2) Your eating feels out of control: “You feel like you have no control over your eating,” Shay says. “You may reach for cookies and find you have eaten three rows of them. Your ability to control your urge is weak.”
3) You hide your eating from others: You may hide food in your room, she says, wake up when others are sleeping to eat it. “You find yourself irritable when others are around as you are just waiting for them to leave so you can eat.”
4) You eat to the point you feel discomfort: Shay says this discomfort is usually in the abdomen, making it hard for you to move.
5) You are always thinking of food: “Others may be speaking with you but you are so focused on food you are not able to focus on all their words. Your mind is always thinking about the next time you will be able to eat and what you may eat.”
And both experts agree when it comes to type of food, most of us are eating salty, fatty and sugary foods when we are stressed.
“They taste good and they raise serotonin levels, the feel-good hormone,” Siegel says. “It’s a quick fix but we all know it doesn’t last.”
How to manage stress eating
Shay says in order to figure out if you are emotionally eating, start by keeping track of both your emotions and what you are eating. This will help you pinpoint any patterns, she says.
“Set a timer for five minutes and pause before seeking solace in food. This will help you build your resilience to sitting with the emotions,” she adds.
She also suggests creating a toolkit for yourself to find other ways to release stress. This could including having a friend that you call or talking a walk — things other than turning to food.
Siegel continues it’s not easy to always recognize you have may be dealing with an eating disorder or even emotional eating. In this case, it is important to reach out for help.
“Letting go of food is challenging and as soon as you recognize something isn’t right for you, you can make changes with the support network around you,” she says. “And if nothing is happening, reach out to somebody who can help. Food is primal.”