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Here Are The 5 Signs You’re Stress Eating

And how you can stop it. Really.

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illustration of woman eating junk food, stress eating
Inma Hortas
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Picture this: You eat because you’re stressed, but then feel guilty because you’ve overeaten. This leads to more anxiety, which can cause you to stress — and eat — even more. Sound familiar? The domino effect can take a toll on more than just your waistline; it can mess with you mentally and emotionally. “Stress eating refers to eating due to emotional stress versus physical hunger or for nutritional purposes,” says Lisa Hugh, CEO and a registered dietician at Southern Maryland Dietitian.

Sometimes, though, stress eating and eating to fulfill a physical need can occur simultaneously, Hugh notes. So, how can we spot the difference? Stress eating is typically triggered by something — for instance, having an argument with someone. “You may consciously or subconsciously think something along the lines of ‘That was stressful, and I don’t like this negative feeling, so I’m going to eat something and feel better,’” Hugh says. “Physical hunger, on the other hand, occurs as your body digests and metabolizes the food you’ve eaten and signals that it needs more nutrition.” Hugh points out that symptoms of hunger may include feelings of weakness, a growling stomach or a headache.

These are five signs of stress eating, according to food specialists.

1. Consuming larger portions

You might find yourself eating more than you physically need because you wish to feel comforted. The problem? “Meeting your physical hunger needs won’t meet your psychological needs, so you may keep eating with the hope that if you eat more of what you’re enjoying, you’ll feel better,” Hugh says. But because this only perpetuates the problem, portion control is key.

A quick route to achieving this is the plate method of meal planning. “One-fourth of the plate is a protein, one-fourth is complex carbohydrates, and the remainder is non-starchy vegetables or one-fourth non-starchy vegetables plus a one-fourth plate of fruit,” Hugh explains. “This will look different for each person, depending on their needs and dietary preferences, but the idea is to have a general guideline to follow to ensure that you get enough of what you need so you don’t get excessively hungry and then overeat.”

2. Feeling guilt after eating

Many people feel guilt after stress eating, particularly if it involved junk food. “When you eat highly processed foods and sugar, it increases a certain type of chemical in your brain and will also increase your insulin response,” says Cali Estes, clinical psychologist, life coach and founder of The Addictions Coach/The Addictions Academy. “All the processed food then causes you to feel sluggish, tired and irritable. On top of this, you may feel even more stressed out, thinking it’s going to take even longer to lose weight or get back into feeling healthy, which can then continue causing more stress.”

To get over the sense of guilt, it’s important to leave that eating session in the past. Beating yourself up over stress eating will only cause you to do it again. Instead, it’s important to start eating healthy the moment you realize you fell off the wagon. For example, if you had a cupcake for breakfast and are feeling guilty, make your next meal a health-conscious one, versus saying you’ll start tomorrow. “This will make you feel better throughout the day and cause you less stress and less guilt,” Estes notes.

3. Eating beyond the point of fullness

If you find yourself eating even when you’re full, you may be stress eating. A great way to cope with this is to practice mindful eating, so you’re in tune with your hunger and fullness cues. “I recommend sitting down, taking three deep breaths and really tuning in to your hunger, fullness and satisfaction levels before, during and after the meal,” says Sara Kashlan, a Los Angeles–based registered dietitian, certified eating disorder specialist and intuitive-eating coach. When you’re first practicing mindfulness, Kashlan advises that it’s best to avoid distractions (such as watching TV), as they can make it easier to become out of touch with your cues. In addition, chew slowly and really take the time to smell and savor your food.

4. Feeling out of control when you’re eating

Stress eating often goes beyond what we know is logical and instead helps to soothe uncomfortable feelings momentarily, says Los Angeles–based registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel. Estes echoes this, noting that when you’re stress eating, you can distract yourself from the stressor while you’re eating, but once you’re done, the stress is still there and hasn’t been dealt with and grows out of control.

Gabriel recommends putting the focus on prepping a few meals and snacks ahead of time so you have some balanced meals ready and available to help combat impulsive moods. You can also reduce stress by listening to music or going for a brisk walk.

5. Indulging in late-night snacks

It’s tempting to reach for that chocolate bar late at night, and while having a nighttime snack here and there doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stress eating, Gabriel says it can be a sign if you’re consuming the bulk of your calories or heavier foods right before bed or even in bed. This becomes a problem because you’re not only compromising your weight and digestion, but your sleep patterns too. “If you don’t sleep well, you’re tired the next day and might find yourself craving more fatty and sugary foods to keep your energy up,” she explains. “This results in unnecessary weight gain, higher blood sugar and a variety of other potential ailments over time, including diabetes, high cholesterol and higher triglyceride levels.”

To counteract the urge for a late-night snack, Gabriel recommends distracting with an activity such as reading, taking a bath, or sipping tea or water. “Having a nighttime ritual that doesn’t involve food is ideal and can also be something to look forward to,” she says.

For more information on how to tame your stress eating, go here.

Do you ever find yourself stress eating? How do you stop yourself? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health