Why You May Be Anxiety Eating and How to Avoid It

Try these expert-approved strategies to avoid overeating when you're anxious.

When you're stressed, eating can seem like just the thing to quell your emotions—whether you're feeling boredom, loneliness, depression, or even anxiety. Problem is, stress eating is hard to stop, and that can lead to overeating. If you're trying to maintain your weight, stress eating makes it harder.

Stress unleashes the hormone cortisol, and eating actually does make you feel better—at least for a little while. "Food can give us the same type of reward and pleasure that even drugs will," Melissa Majumdar, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Health. Munching can also serve as a distraction from whatever's stressing you out.

But eating to quell stress—rather than hunger—isn't a winning strategy. Whether you have an anxiety disorder or you're facing ongoing stress in your life, a few simple tips can help tame stress eating.

Aim for Balance

It's not the carrots and the broccoli that people tend to go for when they're stressed—it's anything packed with sugar or fat. You're probably not likely to overdo it on something like grilled chicken breast, said Majumdar.

Sugary and fat-filled choices can numb emotions, but they also spike your blood sugar before sending it back into the trenches. Then you can feel hungry all over again and you're on a collision course with more stress eating.

Instead of Oreos and potato chips, aim for a balance of protein and fiber, since they are digested more slowly for "more of a sustained, gradual increase and decrease of blood sugar," said Majumdar.

Because snacks like crackers can be a trigger for some people, causing them to devour an entire box, she likes to steer people toward sources of carbs like berries and melon. Pair them with hard-boiled eggs, low-fat Greek yogurt, or cottage cheese for protein, said Majumdar.

Eat at Regular Intervals

The longer you go without eating, the more likely you are to eat too much, whether you're anxious or not.

"You've had a long, stressful day, you're hungry, you're [more likely] to overeat," Dena Cabrera, PsyD, executive clinical director of the Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders, told Health. "It's a perfect storm."

Instead of stuffing yourself in one sitting, eat balanced meals and snacks every three to four hours. Eating regularly like this will help you control your portion sizes and limit the urge to eat out of stress. "The goal is to feel satisfied and not turn to food," said Cabrera.

Be Mindful

Research published in February 2017 suggested that a daily practice of mindfulness could reduce emotional eating in people whose stress levels are persistently high. In the study, published in the journal Appetite, participants meditated for 45 minutes a day almost every day of the week and performed other mindfulness practices, like eating one meal a day mindfully. Some easy ways to bring more mindfulness into your own eating—and curb the anxiety-provoked snacking—include:

  • Eating slowly and with a purpose.
  • Taking several deep breaths before each meal.
  • Putting your fork (or spoon) down between bites.
  • Taking stock of how stressed you are before you eat. Use the HALT method, suggests Majumdar. Note if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired to assess whether you're eating out of necessity or due to your emotions.

Create a Safe Eating Environment

That means not eating in front of the TV or your phone. Instead, try eating at your regular table.

Other ways to make sure your eating environment is helpful and not harmful: Put the food away after you've served it to limit trips back for seconds and thirds, and don't store food where you can see it.

"If we have a bag of chips and cookies and we walk by, we're going to grab them if we're in a state of anxious eating," said Majumdar, who is also a clinical bariatric dietitian at Brigham and Women's Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery in Boston.

Change Your Route

Literally. If you're feeling stressed, don't drive by your favorite fast-food restaurant on the way home, said Majumdar. It's important to shift your thinking toward non-food ways of decompressing.

Sometimes it can help to navigate your own home differently. Cabrera worked with one woman who used to binge when she walked through the kitchen to take her dog out in the middle of the night. Cabrera suggested her patient go out the back door instead of the front so she could avoid the kitchen. "That helped significantly," she said.

A Quick Review

Stress-eating is real, and at the moment, can feel like it's helping. In the long-run, stress-eating isn't the best coping method. There are many ways to reduce stress eating, from changing up how you store your food or what places you pass by on your way back from work to finding new ways to cope with anxious feelings. You can reach out to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional for other ways to help curb stress-eating.

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