Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, stress eating disorder is a form of disordered eating characterized eating as a way to combat stress. 

While it may not seem like a common condition since most people lose their appetite rather than overindulge during stress, this condition actually affects more people than you can imagine.

According to the American Psychological Association, 27 percent of adults reported eating to manage stress, while 34 percent of them reported overeating. But that’s not all; 49 percent of the adults experienced disappointment afterward, while 36 percent felt sluggish and lazy.

So while stress eating may seem like an escape route when stressed, it may make you feel worse and create a dangerous vicious cycle.

This article takes a closer look at what a stress eating disorder is, how it presents itself, and ways to cope and prevent future episodes.

See, Overcoming Binge Eating and How To Stop Eating Late At Night

What is a Stress Eating Disorder?

A stress eating disorder is where one uses food to cope with stress and other emotional struggles. This involves overindulging in comfort foods like junk, high calorie dense, and sugary foods with the slightest stress trigger, even when not hungry.

Unlike most people who may once in a while engage in certain foods when stressed, a stress eating disorder is different in that this person focuses intensely on food and nothing else, and they lack the ability to control their eating habits. 

And since most binged foods are unhealthy, a stress eating disorder can put you at risk of various health conditions, including weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and increased cancer risk.

Common Causes for Stress Eating Disorders

There are various reasons for stress eating, and most of them are as a coping mechanism for:

  • Anger
  • Loss (of a loved one or a job)
  • Resentment
  • Boredom
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Changes in life
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness

Understanding the Relationship Between Stress Eating and Hormones

As explained above, stress eating is overindulgence in food due to emotional distress. Besides the American Psychological Association study, a recent study found that 37% of adults admitted to stress eating. So why does this happen? Do hormones have a role?

For some people, short-term stress causes a shutdown of the appetite. In such cases, the nervous system sends constant messages to the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline(epinephrine). The hormone is responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction, which puts a hold on eating.

However, if the stress continues, the adrenal glands will produce another hormone called cortisol. This is a hormone responsible for increasing appetite and motivation to eat. After the stressful episode, the hormone levels should fall. Nevertheless, if the stress doesn’t go, the cortisol levels will still be high, prompting stress eating.

How Stress Eating and Food Preferences Affect Your Weight

As mentioned in the introduction, stress eaters often prefer high-calorie foods, sugary treats, and junk foods. According to research, emotional distress increases the consumption of foods high in sugar and fat, sometimes both. This has been hugely linked to high levels of cortisol and insulin. It could also be due to an increase in ghrelin levels, the hunger hormone.

Fatty and sugary foods dampen stress-related responses and emotions in most people. This earns them the term ‘comfort’ foods as they seem to counteract stress. If you once ate some junk food when you were feeling low, and it uplifted you, you might have a craving for the same food when going through a stressful episode.

Food cravings associated with stress eating often lead to weight gain and obesity. Still, it’s good to note that people undergoing stress also tend to experience insomnia, little-to-no exercise, and indulgence in alcohol. All these play a role in excess weight gain.

Common Signs of a Stress Eating Disorder

1. Eating when you’re not physically hungry

We are all supposed to eat when hungry because hunger is a signal that your body is running low on energy. However, if you find yourself eating without any physical feelings of hunger, it could be a sign that you’re dealing with a stressful situation.

So it’s better to take a moment and reflect on why you really want to eat. You’ll be surprised that you don’t need the food.

2. Eating unhealthy or “junk” foods

Eating more unhealthy or junk foods than you usually do could be a sign that you’re eating out of stress.

These foods are often high in fat and added sugar and may provide a short-lived sense of pleasure and relief from whatever is stressing you. However, these foods lack the nutrients your body needs to combat stress. And since they are high in unhealthy ingredients, you’ll end up feeling worse than before.

3. Eating in Response to Emotions

Have you recently noticed that you overeat when you have stressful situations such as pressure at work, studies, or exams? Well, you might be stressed eating. 

During such times, you might subconsciously reach out for food as a way to keep yourself busy or engaged. 

You may also reach out for food when feeling sad, lonely, bored, anxious, or tired. 

While at that, it’s important to note that stress eating could also be overindulging when you are happy or celebrating something good. In this case, you see food as a companion.

4. A Serious Sequel of Cravings        

There are times when you will crave particular foods, and you can explain. For example, most women experience sugar cravings for a few days leading to their periods. This is because, on the onset of periods, the body releases more estrogen and less progesterone. This causes the blood sugars to drop. When this happens, the brain sends signals for sugar replenishment, hence the cravings. 

However, if your cravings cannot be explained, you could be stressed eating. You might even feel unhappy for the rest of the day if the cravings are not satisfied.

5. Eating at Unusual Times

If you have been sneaking into the kitchen late at night, early in the morning, or just when you are bored only to leave with a treat, you might be stressed eating. Sometimes you might even be rightfully full, but you desire some momentary satisfaction.

6. Guilt After Overindulgence

For most stress eaters, there is a wave of guilt that they feel after overindulgence. You know you shouldn’t be doing this very well; your mind gives you the pointer, but you still go ahead and do it. The guilt often comes afterward, and though you get the momentary satisfaction, you may also feel more messed up than before eating that treat.

7. Changes in weight

Drastic changes in your weight is another cardinal sign of stress eating. You will notice you’ve gained so much weight in a very short time, and you can’t explain how. However, if you trace your eating habits within the past few weeks, you might realize a pattern of stress eating.

In fact, stress eating is the number one cause of obesity and weight gain. This is because most stress eaters consume high-calorie fatty and sugary foods and do not exercise. If you have no other condition that could cause weight gain, yet there is a spike, it could be due to stress eating.

How to Cope with Stress Eating

Having known what stress eating looks like, what can you do to improve your situation and prevent future episodes?

For starters, you need to know that nothing is wrong with you and that you can overcome the condition. Here are a few tips for coping with stress eating.

1. Know your triggers

Knowing the problem is half the journey to the solution. If you are stress eating, you need to be more aware of your eating habits and see if you can identify what is triggering them. It could be anger, stress, fear, boredom, loneliness, etc. You need to access whatever is going on to help you realize your actual triggers.

Once you know the triggers, you can find ways to cope with the stress.

2. Choose Healthy Coping Mechanism for Stress

A few things to help you cope with stress the healthy way include:

Getting active:

Exercise is one of the best remedies for relieving stress. This is because when you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. This improves mood and triggers a positive feeling throughout the body, causing your stress levels to go down.

Avoid unhealthy habits:

These may include smoking, drinking too much caffeine, alcohol intake, and the use of illegal substances to cope with stress. Instead, go for a walk, connect with loved ones, or read a book. Engaging in activities that keep you sober will give you a clear point of view on the situation and, thus, a fairer judgment solution overall.

Eat a healthy diet:

A healthy diet focused on whole, minimally processed foods is another important step in coping with stress. For instance, these foods are rich in vitamins like the B complex and minerals like magnesium, which help you relax and improve stress. Processed foods, which you’re likely to eat when under stress, can only worsen the situation.

3. Practice Mindful Eating

Besides eating healthy to address stress, you need to practice mindful eating overall.

Mindful eating refers to genuinely paying attention to what you are eating. Start by stocking up your kitchen with healthy options and taking time to prepare your meals. Besides going for healthy options, researchers advise that you only eat when hungry, take small bites, and be thorough with chewing. When you eat slowly and look at your food, you are more likely to eat less. You will recognize when you are full and stop.

4. Speak with Your Physician

When you feel overwhelmed and cannot manage your emotions and stresses on your own, you need to visit the doctor. Besides helping you manage your stress, they can also recommend a dietician to help you adjust your diet.

5. Be Patient with Yourself  

It takes time to develop new habits and break old ones. You might still fall off the wagon occasionally and find yourself overindulging. But that shouldn’t be the end. Collect yourself, and start again. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t expect perfection instantly.

Stress Eating FAQs

Why am I stressed eating?

There are various causes of stress eating, and they differ from one person to another. It could be an escape from negative emotions such as stress, loneliness, sadness, anger, boredom, and fear. It could also be due to a major life event or daily pressure.

Can stress eating lead to any health complications?

Yes. Stress eating is detrimental and can open doors for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disorders, insomnia, high cholesterol levels, and irregular menstrual cycles in women.

Can I stress eat without knowing it?

Yes. It is possible to indulge in stress eating without knowing. Sometimes your emotions can become so rooted in your eating habits. This makes you immediately reach out for that sugary treat when angry without giving it a second thought.

Is stress eating a good coping mechanism?

While healthy food is essential to help your body overcome stress, stress eating is more often associated with unhealthy foods. So no. Stress eating is definitely not a good coping mechanism. But if you must eat something, then let it be something healthy like a fruit or vegetable sticks with hummus, etc

Is it possible to stop stress eating?

Yes. You can always stop stress eating. However, you must know that the journey requires a lot of commitment, adopting new habits, and consistency. You should see and feel a huge difference within a few months of using the right stress management methods.

Final Thoughts

A stress eating disorder is a condition where an individual compulsively engages in eating as a way of seeking comfort or relieving stress. 

This type of eating can be dangerous, often leading to weight gain and other health issues.

Nonetheless, if you are struggling with stress eating, know that you are not alone. Most people turn to food as a coping mechanism for stress, and it can be difficult to break the habit. 

However, as seen above, understanding the reasons behind your stress eating and the triggers, alongside making simple changes to your lifestyle, will help you overcome this condition.

With that in mind, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional whenever you feel overwhelmed.

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