This post will be focused on why people stress eat. I am Dr. Rebecca Leslie, an Atlanta based psychologist that specializes in stress eating. In this article I will focus on understanding why you stress eat, I will share what stress or emotional eating is (I will use these words interchangeably) and I will explain when stress eating can be normal. I will also explain the role stress eating serves and a step you can take to help with emotional or stress eating.

I want to start with the idea that it’s hard to take emotions out of food. Food is connected to emotions. There is eating to celebrate, eating tied with cultural and religious holidays, eating as a way to connect with others and even to express love. The idea of eating just to live and taking emotions out of eating is incredibly difficult. It’s also hard to look at food as just nutrients. Doing so also would deprive us of so much pleasure that can be connected to eating. Eating experiences can be much more than just about the food too. For example, going to a nice restaurant for a birthday dinner can also be about the people and the experience.

It is also hard to never emotional eat. In fact, some emotional eating is actually very normal. If it happens sometimes and you are not distressed by it or it doesn’t have negative impacts, then it’s likely nothing to worry about. However, when you notice a pattern of emotional eating, it can be something that is important to address.

Defining Emotional Eating

The eating connected to emotions that can become problematic is called emotional eating or stress eating. Researchers specifically define emotional eating as eating that is in response to a negative emotional state.  An example of this is stress eating a bag of popcorn while working on a tight deadline without feeling hungry or aware of how much you are eating. Typically, emotional eating involves eating a larger amount of food than you normally consume and eating past the point of fullness. Emotional eating can take many different forms. For a lot of people, it can feel defiant or be a break from being “good” with eating.

Why Do You Emotionally Eat or Stress Eat?

You may be wondering why you emotionally eat if it’s something you are not happy about and want to stop. If you are emotionally eating or stress eating, it’s very important to first have some compassion with yourself. You started emotional eating for a reason and you are continuing it for a reason. As humans we tend to repeat behaviors that provide us with benefits, and emotional eating does this in some way. It provides a short-term benefit of not having to think about whatever is causing those negative emotions. Emotional eating also provides a release from control. When you stress eat you don’t have to think, plan, or count calories. You are free. You don’t have to follow any rules.

Stress eating can be a break from all control, pressure, and rules. It’s a time where you don’t have to think or worry about calories or anything else going on in your life. It’s also a time where you get to do what you want and no one, including yourself tells you what to do. There can be a feeling of relief that comes with emotional eating or even just the decision to eat. So, it can be rewarding – temporarily.

Most of the clients that I work with as a psychologist are emotionally eating because they are feeling stuck, trapped, controlled, or that they do not have choice in some area of their life. An example of this is being at a job you hate and feeling like you can’t leave. This could also look like being controlling with what you can and can’t eat and what are good and bad foods. The words should and shouldn’t tend to be familiar for emotional eaters. This can apply specifically to food. For example, saying things like “I shouldn’t have seconds” or “I should get the lowest calorie option on the menu.” The ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ can also apply to friends, family, work, or your emotions. For example, saying things like, “I shouldn’t be upset,” or “I should be doing more.” There tends to be a lot of categorizing of things that are good or you are supposed to do and things that are bad or you should not do.

One Step To Help With Stress Eating

One of the first steps if you are stress or emotionally eating and you want to make a change is to pause before you eat. Pause and take a moment to ask yourself what is going on. Check in with what you are thinking and feeling. Start getting curious about what is there. You can even write down in a notebook or on your phone your thoughts and emotions. You can see if there is a pattern. You can also see if there is a time of day or certain event that tends to be connected to emotional eating. If you are not able to find a pattern or theme, that’s OK. The process of pausing and becoming curious can in itself be helpful. It can help you slow down and get connected to your mind and body. When you’re pausing and checking in, also ask yourself if you are feeling stuck, controlled, or if you do not have choice in any area of your life.

If you want therapy for stress eating or emotional eating, Best Within You Therapy & Wellness Atlanta psychologists specialize in stress eating, emotional eating, and eating disorders. You’re welcome to reach out to schedule an appointment or free consultation.

If you live in Atlanta, Georgia or any of these states you can scheudle an online therapy appointment for stress eating.