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How to Stop Stress Eating: Tips and Tricks

Here’s how to stop stress eating if you’re anything like me.

I used to weigh 200 pounds. I wanted to have healthy eating habits, but I didn’t know how to stop stress eating

After I started working with a functional medicine specialist, I was eating better. I learned how to read food labels and focus on fresh foods. I had stopped buying junk food during my regular grocery shopping. 

I didn’t have any of my typical comfort foods in my pantry. 

In fact, I was on an autoimmune paleo elimination diet that was helping some of my symptoms. 

But I had a hard day. I was in grad school at the time and juggling three part-time jobs. I had eaten dinner already, but I just felt jittery.

I don’t even recall what the trigger was, but I found myself sitting on my futon, eating an entire 3-pound bag of baby carrots in one sitting.

Yes, you read that right. In my cycle of emotional eating, I downed an entire 3-pound bag of baby carrots. 

I think I was actually craving a bag of chips, but the crunchy carrots were the next best thing. 

My emotions got the best of me and I didn’t know how to stop stress eating. 

Can you relate? 

What Is Stress Eating? 

Stress eating is using food as a coping mechanism to numb or soothe our emotions

It’s also called emotional eating or binge eating. It goes beyond eating for health and nutrition and uses the act of eating as an attempt to emotionally regulate.

It is important to recognize that the cravings can be genuine. If you feel your appetite coming on, listen to your body’s signals. 

Whenever you feel like stress eating, it’s important to recognize that this is a real cue from your body. The urge is real. And it serves a purpose.

Our emotions are helpful guideposts that we should heed. Do not shove down or ignore your emotions

When I started listening, I realized that my urges to stress eat were actually my nervous system asking for a break or to wind down for the day. 

SJ weight comparison

A Note on Nutrition 

As always, please talk to your doctor if you have strong food cravings to ensure you don’t have a nutritional deficiency or hormone imbalance. Physical hunger can be a sign of serious health issues so make sure you rule those out. This post is not a substitute for medical advice. 

In my own journey, I learned that some of my stress-eating episodes were due to a lack of healthy fats and a magnesium deficiency. (You can read more about that in this post about food cravings.

chocolate

So please be open with your doctor about your food cravings so they can help you. If you think you have any kind of eating disorder, please talk to your doctor or a licensed therapist, or a counselor. 

Once you know you have covered your bases, that you aren’t dehydrated and have no nutritional deficiencies, you can dig deeper into your stress eating

Before we discuss how to stop stress eating, it’s important to understand why we do it. 

RELATED: Get tips for helping kids with emotional eating here.

Why Do We Stress Eat? 

The cause(s) of stress eating vary from person to person. However, some of the common triggers for people are

  • Boredom 
  • Cortisol levels 
  • Loneliness 
  • Busyness 
  • Rewarding ourselves 
  • Guilt 
  • Shame 
  • Chronic stress 
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

Looking back, I now recognize that a big part of why I was stress-eating is because I didn’t have the right tools to practice healthy coping mechanisms

The hunger I felt was my body asking me to do something to calm my nervous system. I wasn’t taking proper breaks. I worked through my lunches and dinners. 

On the night that I ate the 3-pound bag of baby carrots, I was coming off of an adrenaline high from working hard all day. My body needed help getting back to homeostasis so I could sleep

But all those carrots did my insulin and prediabetes no favors. 

Food wasn’t the answer. 

stressed out woman looking at computer

I needed healthy alternatives to my stress response. I needed to unwind for the day. 

Stress eating was difficult for me to unlearn. I grew up in a house where both of my parents were stress eaters so I didn’t know what else to turn to. 

My most common time of temptation was in the evenings around 8 or 9 pm. 

Once I learned the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, I realized I was emotionally hungry for better habits

I needed to set boundaries on my work and school, like not working more than an hour after dinner. 

It took me a decade longer to realize I didn’t want to work after dinner at all. (The only exception to this now is social-based meetings.) 

When I ate that 3-pound bag of baby carrots, I typically worked each night until exhaustion so it’s no wonder my body was crying out for something different

And food was the only solution I knew how to turn to at the time, whether it was a box of cookies or a pint of ice cream. 

My stress levels were out of control and my body was asking me to find a way to bring it down a few notches. 

So how do we stop stress eating? 

How to Stop Stress Eating 

Like most bad habits, the first step to quitting is learning to recognize when you want to start stress eating

Now, whenever I am tempted to stress eat, I take it as a signal that I need to slow down and pay attention to what is going on inside me

I learned the hard way that ignoring my urges to stress eat doesn’t serve me. 

What Not To Do 

At first, I tried to will myself to stop this cycle of emotional eating. I would recognize the urge, but then I would force myself to push through whatever chore, task, or study I was working on. 

But the temptation wouldn’t go away and I would have trouble ignoring the emotional craving. 

I needed to find a replacement way to cope or calm down. That’s what my body was actually asking for. 

The best way to stop stress eating is to replace it with a healthier coping mechanism. 

So the next time you are tempted to use food to soothe your stress or numb your emotions, I encourage you to ask what healthier coping mechanism you can turn to instead. 

This usually starts with a deep breath. Sometimes, all I need is a few deep breaths and then I can continue whatever I am doing. 

At times, I am able to recognize that I am feeling some strong emotions and my body is asking me to take a break to reset and recharge

In the middle of the day, I will pause to eat a healthy snack that I’ve packed. 

But more often than not, when I’m tempted to stress eat, my body is asking me to stop working for the day and to find a healthy way to unwind. 

Imagine feeling like you’re in charge of your brain…your reactions to your child asking a question for the 17th time…and even to the news delivering yet another “it can’t get any worse” report.

In this mini-course, Mastering Your Stress for Busy Moms, you’ll learn how to transform your stress into FUEL for your beautiful life.

Stress Mastery Course Products

Women have different hormones than men, so we feel stress differently.

And we can react to stress differently too–

Which means women have to recover from and MASTER stress differently.

Certified Stress Mastery Educator Katie Kimball Shares Actionable Ideas And Science Geek Info In This Mini-Course.

Start Small 

To start, I encourage you to pick one of these to experiment with. You may want to write them down on a sticky note and list the 2-3 that strike you. Then, when you want to stress eat, you can pick which one appeals to you the most. 

Consider what hobbies you enjoy the most or other healthy stress relievers. 

Some of the best ways I’ve managed to stop stress eating are: 

  • Deep breathing 
  • Journalling 
  • Spending time outside 
  • Drinking tea 
  • Warm baths 
  • Stretching 

Here’s a little more on each of the above. 

Deep Breathing  

When I am stressed and my body shifts into fight or flight mode, I tend to hold my breath a lot or take shallow breaths

I’ve learned that taking a few deep breaths can help remind my body that I am not being chased by a tiger. I am simply trying to get work done and I don’t need to be in panic mode to do it. 

I find that closing my eyes makes deep breathing a more effective relaxation technique. But if I am in a place where I can’t do that, the next best thing is to turn away from my screen and look out a window

deep breathing

Journalling 

I am an emotional stuffer. But journaling has been a safe way for me to explore how I am feeling and to ask myself what I really want. 

I have to ask myself if I am overworking or putting too much pressure on myself. Sometimes, I emotionally eat because I want to numb out negative emotions instead of confronting them. 

But writing out my thoughts has been a healthy way to manage the stress they bring. In this season of life, I tend to journal 1-2 mornings a week. 

Journaling helped me discover some emotions I was stuffing down. Because I still am navigating some food sensitivities, I’ve had to navigate the grief of losing foods I enjoy eating. You can read more about handling food loss in this post.

Spending Time Outside 

I am prone to overworking. I can get so wrapped up in my job or managing the house that I forget that I am worth having fun and finding healthy pleasures

One of my favorite healthy pleasures is sunlight. 

When the weather is nice enough, I find time to sit outside in the sun

If I don’t have a lot of time, I try to prioritize eating breakfast outside or taking my lunch break outside. 

walking outside

Some of my friends really enjoy forest bathing as their favorite healthy pleasure. In contrast to hiking, forest bathing is a slow way of walking through the woods where you just drink nature in. 

It’s important to make time to be outside to help calm your nervous system. 

Drinking Tea 

I believe that we are made to enjoy our food and other good pleasures. 

Since I still struggle to pace myself with food, I’ve found other healthy pleasures that are easier for me to control myself with. 

At times, I struggle to discern if I am actually hungry or if I just want to stress eat. Sometimes, I wonder if I am dehydrated too. 

I began trying different herbal teas as a replacement for my stress eating. 

My absolute favorite herbal tea is red raspberry leaf. I also enjoy red clover, dandelion root, nettle leaf, and lemon balm. 

I frequently will add some electrolyte powder to my tea which also helps with hydration. 

However, if I still feel hungry and it’s not near a regular meal time, I will listen to my body and try a protein-packed healthy snack like cottage cheese or a handful of nuts. 

Warm Baths 

Because most of my stress eating tends to happen in the evening, I needed a better way to wind down at the end of the day

I also learned that I had a magnesium deficiency. 

magnesium flakes

My leaky gut was having trouble absorbing any vitamins I tried taking. My doctor recommended trying Epsom salt baths. (Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate.) 

Taking magnesium in through the skin bypasses the gut wall. 

I also found that the heat was really comforting and helped me to relax. 

If you don’t like taking baths, another way to decompress is with a sauna. Saunas have so many health benefits and can serve as a great way to wind down at the end of a long day. 

Stretching 

Another healthy pleasure that I found really helpful was trying some different stretches

I used to think that this meant that I needed to do an hour-long yoga class. 

I tend to procrastinate if I can’t do something “the right way.” But I’ve learned that this perfectionistic tendency doesn’t serve me. 

Now, if I am feeling antsy, I will do some neck stretches at my desk while turning to face the window. I might even bring my ankle up to do a figure 4 stretch, and lean forward into it. 

In the evening, I’ll simply do a spinal twist while sitting on the couch or I might pull up a ten-minute bedtime meditation

If you feel the urge to stress eat in the middle of the day, you might consider finding a mid-day exercise routine that gives you a mental break. (I’ve learned that evening exercise tends to leave me feeling wired so I’ll only do stretches after I eat dinner.) 

Beware of other Bad Coping Mechanisms

When I am in a season of higher stress, I still struggle with simply replacing one bad habit for another at times. 

I’m a typical millennial who turns to my phone to numb out, but I’ve had to remind myself that mindless scrolling isn’t actually going to soothe my stress or my nervous system

Be mindful of the ways that you might accidentally replace your stress eating with another destructive habit

stress eating cravings

Hope for Stress Eating 

Remember to start small as you try to shift your habits. It’s a lot of work to unlearn unhealthy coping mechanisms, like stress eating. 

Pick one replacement coping mechanism to start and see how it goes. 

After experimenting with which healthy pleasures and habits help you the most, consider ways that you can fill your recharging bank before your day starts. 

For me, that looks like trying to get outside for 30 minutes in the morning. (That is…when it’s above 40 degrees which is just under half the year in the Midwest where I am.) 

I’ve found that intentionally filling up my tank has largely mitigated my stress-eating urges later in the day

That’s why I am such a big fan of Katie’s stress mastery challenges. Her recommendations are realistic for busy moms

I know you will learn about more stress mastery techniques to try to use as a replacement for your stress eating. 

We are all wired differently for why we stress eat and what will help us stop. 

When are you most tempted to stress eat? What will you experiment with to stop stress eating? 

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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