Why Do We Turn to Food in Times of Stress?

Imagine a day when you are free of responsibilities. You have nothing on your mind. Now, you start to feel distressed as your attention starts to drift towards stress and anxiety-provoking thoughts.

All of a sudden, you find yourself searching for food to eat even though you don't feel hungry. The moment you start eating, it gives you pleasure, and the distress seems to disappear.

Now you start to feel uncomfortable once you have eaten all the food. The temporary pleasures you enjoyed while eating goes away and is replaced by guilt. You promise to eat less tomorrow and exercise more.

Many people have such a friend and foe relationship with food and can relate to this pattern of feelings.

People turn to food as a coping mechanism to help deal with a variety of challenges:

  • loneliness
  • insecurity
  • family problems
  • societal pressure
  • uncertainties and other conflicts

Distress causes the brain to releases dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline that triggers "fight or flight" response in our body. It decreases our appetite.

Think of a situation such as a presentation or a stage performance. Our desire to have food reduces significantly just before a high-stress situation.

However, research suggests that long-term stress alters hormone levels in the body. As a result, our appetite increases and often leads to eating to relieve the stress level.

Related: The Link Between OCD and Eating Disorders

Difference between emotional eating and binge eating

Emotional eating is a lot more common than binge eating.

Emotional eating happens as a response to stress. You eat food to cope with feelings of anxiety.

Binge eating, on the other hand, also involves eating food to deal with stressful situations, but two specific factors distinguish it from emotional eating.

Firstly, the amount of food consumed within two hours must be significantly more than what is considered normal. Secondly, you feel a loss of control during binge-eating and are unable to stop once you've started eating.

What is emotional and physical hunger?

Emotional hunger

  1. Sudden development
  2. Feels like it has to be satisfied immediately
  3. Makes you crave for specific comfort foods
  4. Not satisfied even on a full stomach
  5. Triggers feelings of guilt, shame, and loss of control

Physical hunger

  1. Gradual development
  2. Doesn't need to be satisfied immediately, unless you are famished
  3. No cravings for any specific comfort foods. Many different types of food can satisfy your physical hunger.
  4. Hunger stops when you are full.
  5. It doesn't trigger any feelings that make you feel bad about yourself.

Ways to control emotional eating

Regular eating

It is understandable to think that when you overeat, you would skip meals or eat small portions to compensate for overeating.

But, by doing so, you are not giving your body what it needs throughout the day, and you end up overeating again.

Follow regular and healthy eating patterns so that you avoid the cycle of overeating and restricting.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness makes you observe your emotions and behavior without being judgmental. Embrace such strong emotions. Emotions are temporary that can naturally change depending on situations and will eventually pass.

You can learn not to give in to negative feelings and the urge to eat to cope with distress. It teaches you how to overcome emotional eating habits.

Self-love

Both emotional eating and binge eating can trigger feelings of guilt and shame. But instead of criticizing yourself, you have to be self-compassionate.

Take steps to stop yourself from overeating. Ask yourself what you would've said to a loved one who had shared this experience with you. Offer the same care and understanding to yourself.

It is good to acknowledge the fact that many people struggle with their relationship with food and stress. You are not alone.

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