Combine the stress and uncertainty you may be experiencing due to the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic with extreme social distancing and long stretches of time at home, and you have a recipe for emotional eating.
Emotional eating, or stress eating, is eating to suppress or soothe negative emotions. Sometimes it can become an automatic response – or habit – that we go to when faced with challenging feelings. Feelings that may trigger eating include sadness, frustration or fear, stress and fatigue.
Chronic mental health issues like depression or anxiety also can trigger emotional eating. And these conditions may become worse during this pandemic.
However, eating to soothe negative emotions doesn’t work. Here’s why.
Eating is a short-term fix. Eating may make you feel better in the very short term, but it does not address the underlying cause of your negative emotions, and it won’t make them go away.
Emotional eating can actually make you feel worse. When you make unhealthy food choices or overeat, you may trigger other unpleasant emotions like shame or regret that are not productive or healthy.
Emotional eating is bad for your health. Over time, overeating and making unhealthy food choices can lead to weight gain. And being overweight or obese increases your risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.
Take steps to overcome emotional eating
Follow these tips to overcome stress eating and keep on track with your health.
Become aware of your triggers. Recording what, when and how you feel in a food diary can help you identify your triggers. By understanding what prompts the eating, you can learn to anticipate challenging moments and plan to cope differently.
Do a hunger reality check. When you find yourself reaching for food, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” Signs of hunger include a growling stomach, headache and low energy. If your last meal was more than four hours ago, you might be hungry. If it was within the last two hours, chances are it’s not hunger.
Do an emotion reality check. After determining if you are truly hungry, ask yourself, “Why am I reaching for food?” and “How do I feel right now?” This can help you figure out if emotions are triggering your eating, what they are and get you started dealing with them.
Find other ways to manage stress and negative emotions. Try journaling, meditation, stretching, calling a friend, exercise, deep breathing or any other non-food related way to cope.
Keep temptations out of the house. Make the healthy choice the easy choice by surrounding yourself with nutritious options.
Get exercise and plenty of sleep. Both physical activity and rest are important for managing stress and emotions. Studies also show that these activities support good nutrition decisions.
Get support when needed. Sometimes you can’t do it alone. Reach out to a friend or family member for support or accountability. Registered dietitians and counselors can also help.