How to Stop Stress Eating: 3 Uncommon Tools for Ending Emotional Eating

This LEGO looks worried, probably because he doesn't know what to eat.

All of us have plenty of stress in our lives.

After the last year we’ve had, your stress level may have quadrupled.

If you find yourself responding by “stress eating,” know that you are not alone.

One of the top issues faced by clients in our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program is emotional or stress eating. After 2020 being all 2020 like (and 2021 having its own challenges), these episodes have only increased.

Today, we’re going to show you exactly how we address emotional eating with our clients, including when it’s – GASP – actually okay to stress eat. 

Here’s what we’ll cover in today’s guide:

Let’s jump right in.

What Is Stress Eating? (A Video from NF Kitchen)

The above video from Coach Justin comes from the Nerd Fitness Prime “Mindset” video series

Justin covers three important lessons I want to highlight, but before we do that, we should ask ourselves a question: 

“What exactly is stress eating?”

Stress eating is consuming food in response to negative emotions like fear, anger, or sadness.

When we stress eat, food is being used to solve a problem. Now, unless we’re actually hungry, it’s likely a problem that food itself isn’t meant to solve.

That’s stress or emotional eating.

Here’s what compounds the whole problem: stress eating itself can make us feel guilty. We often feel terrible once our spoon hits the bottom of the pint of ice cream.

This can drive more negative emotions, which can trigger even more stress eating.

And the pattern continues.

A gif of Tina saying "I'm out of control."

We’ll talk about ways to break this cycle in a moment, but before we do, we need to create some tools to identify it in the first place. 

What Causes Stress Eating? (Lesson #1: Playing Detective)

a picture of Detective Pikachu

You may have been surprised in our video above when Coach Justin gives permission to  stress eat.

Counterintuitive and seemingly counterproductive, I know. But this is going to be important for two reasons.

How to Approach Stress Eating Step #1: we need to curb the guilty feelings about stress or emotional eating. 

I started this guide off by highlighting the frequency of stress eating amongst our Online Coaching clients

You are not the only one struggling with this.

Most humans do.

And robots with human-like emotions and taste buds

A gif of Eva, who might be craving some food because of stress.

We’ll come back to this idea again, because ending the shame of emotional eating will be critical for moving forward. 

How to Approach Stress Eating Step #1: allowing ourselves to stress eat will help us learn why we do it.

We’re going to be playing detective here, to see if we can piece apart your actions and routines.

This man's book says "how to be a detective" so you know it's legit

At the end of the day, our lives are a cumulation of habits. Stress eating is one such habit.

So let’s learn about it!

To do so, we’re gonna record some Emotional Eating Notes

During an episode of stress eating, it’s important to ask ourselves:

  • What am I doing?
  • What am I feeling? (Both physically and emotionally)
  • What am I thinking about?
  • What time is it?
  • Where am I?
  • Who am I with?

Ideally, we’ll start to ask yourself these questions:

  • An hour or two before the eating episode
  • Right before it
  • During it
  • Right after it

The purpose of these Emotional Eating Notes?

To look for patterns!

Detective Pikachu is holding up a magnifying glass in this gif.

Perhaps you’ll notice some of the following:

  • “After my recent Tuesday morning conference call, when I got grilled by my company’s leadership, I grabbed some chocolate chip cookies. This happened the week before too.”
  • “Around 2pm, when I get the ‘afternoon slumps,’ I normally grab a Coca-Cola. This little boost gets me through the end of the day. This is almost a daily practice.”
  • “Last Sunday evening, when thinking about the start of the workweek, I had a couple glasses of wine. When looking back at my notes, this takes place at the end of most weekends.”

We’re looking for patterns to help us understand what drives our stress eating. 

The most important thing about this process: withholding judgment.

We’re looking at our notes for clues into our psyche. Whatever we captured is okay.

If you order pizza every Thursday after talking with your overbearing mom (of course, she means well), step one is to recognize it.

Oftentimes, this awareness step alone can help shift behavior. “Oh, I’m reaching for a beer like I normally do after ending my workday. Typical Me.”

After creating some notes on what spurs our emotional eating, it’s time to think about some alternatives for coping with stress.

How Do I Stop Mindless Eating? (Lesson #2: The Stress Response Menu)

This photo has two LEGO characters in it, with one holding their stress response menu.

After documenting what sets off our stress eating, we need to formulate a plan on what to do when our anxiety rises.

That means it’s time to build…a Stress Response Menu!

Our Stress Response Menu will be a list of actions or activities you can do to de-stress outside of eating.

Ideally, you’ll do them before an eating episode, but they can be done during or after the fact too.

In other words, if you only realized you were stress eating when your hand reaches the bottom of the Doritos bag, no problem, you can do your stress response activity right then. 

The purpose of the Stress Response Menu is to reward yourself with a small moment of self-love, whenever your anxiety levels are too much.

Here are some ideas for activities to place on your Stress Response Menu:

  • Close your eyes and take five deep breaths (Coach Justin’s go-to move)
  • Drink a large glass of water
  • Take a short walk
  • Go listen to one of your favorite songs
  • Do a quick stretching routine
  • Write in your journal
  • Play with your dog
  • Shout at the sky

A gif of Grandpa Simpson shouting at a cloud.

The more the activity from your Stress Response Menu can match your personal goals, the better. 

In other words, if you’re trying to build muscle, some push-ups might be the perfect de-stresser. 

Just make sure it’s something you won’t dread doing. 

A combination of a “de-stressor” and a “reward.”

This is important, as Coach Justin mentions that many of his clients only reward themselves with food. The self-love they practice only takes place in the kitchen. 

Our menu above will help us develop some more options, not solely based on food.

To make the most of your Stress Response Menu:

#1) Make the activities short and easy. 

You should feel confident that you can do every item on your list. So avoid activities that will take longer than 10 minutes to complete. 

Also, set yourself up for success by hacking your Batcave:

  • If you’re going to journal when stressed, keep your diary open on your work desk.
  • If you’re going to drink water before any emotional eating, keep your full glass  near you. 
  • If you’re going to take a short walk, keep your kicks near the door.

Don’t set yourself up for failure by picking overly complicated or burdensome activities.

#2) Place your Stress Response Menu somewhere visible. 

Once you make your list, print it out and place it in your kitchen or pantry (or wherever you typically stress eat). 

You could also write out a couple of your favorite activities and attach them to your refrigerator. 

If it’s right in front of you, it’ll be harder to ignore (however, it’s okay to ignore it from time to time, as we aren’t striving for perfection).

Just please don’t write it and then stick the list in the junk drawer that opens to another dimension.

Yeah, don't put your stress response menu in a portal like this.

You never can find anything in that drawer.

#3)Track your usage of the Stress Response Menu. 

This will help us in two ways:

  • First, by tracking your usage, you’ll start to feel better about using the SRM. You’ll see an accumulation of all the times you successfully deployed a stress response, helping you visualize the momentum you’re building. 
  • Second, the data will help you understand your patterns of emotional eating. Maybe five deep breaths steered you away from ice cream but the large glass of water did not. You can then use this information to update and revise your response plan.

For the first point, Coach Justin has his clients keep a “Jar of Awesome.”

Every time they have a small win in the day, like taking five deep breaths instead of chugging soda, they place a marble or small token in a jar. After a while, the jar will have a decent amount of marbles or “small wins” in it.

This will then stand as a visual reminder of all the progress being made, proof of their ongoing wins.

How Common Is Stress Eating? (Lesson #3: Learning Self-Compassion)

This photo shows a sad clown on a psychiatrist couch.

The American Psychological Association has found that about a third of Americans respond to stress with food.[1] 

This research was done BEFORE our global pandemic.

So if you find yourself binging in response to the stress of our global pandemic, know that you are not alone here.

Our coaching clients, and the NF Coaches themselves, have all found themselves turning to food and alcohol for comfort during quarantine. 

Heck, recently I mindlessly devoured an entire tub of Animal Crackers too. It was only when the bag was gone did I understand what just happened.

A gif of "the next day" from the film the Hangover

Many of us, even fitness “experts,” are prone to stress eating.

Now, don’t take this as a free pass to stress eat. 

If the behavior goes against your goals, it’s something we want to work towards improving.

But there’s a reason they call it “comfort food.” Food can often be used to make us happier, pandemic or no-pandemic. 

At the end of the day, we’re all emotional bags of meat on this floating hunk of space rock, and we’re doing the best we can. 

Give yourself a bit of a break, my friend.

You’re here, you’re reading, and you’re trying. That’s great!

This will bring me to my last point with our handy guide:

Is It Okay to Stress Eat? (Next Steps)

A LEGO pushing around a hot dog stand (with ice cream)

There are times when food is the perfect response to stress.

It’s something Coach Justin mentions in his video.

“Stress eating” might be appropriate if: 

  • After a long workday, a glass of wine with cheese helps you unwind.
  • To celebrate the coming of the weekend, you have an ice cream party on Friday night.
  • The week already seems long, and it just started, “Taco Tuesday” might help you survive until Friday.

The important thing here? 

“We are making a choice.” 

We are choosing to deal with stress or anxiety with food. By making it an intentional activity, we can remove the guilt around emotional eating.

Food can be fine as a reward, as long as it’s us controlling the behavior, and not the food itself.

In addition, if we can recognize the action (or plan for it), we can then adjust our calories before and after and not go off the rails. 

(You can calculate your recommended total daily calorie intake here, by the way!)

If it seems like you aren’t quite there yet, start with your Emotional Eating Notes and your Stress Response Menu.

Even just the process of taking notes on specific episodes of stress eating may be enough to slow down the behavior.

Remember, no matter what happens:

  • You are not a bad person if you stress eat.
  • You are not a bad person if you forget to take notes.
  • You are not a bad person if you ignore your Stress Response Menu.

You are not a bad person (unless you’re a Death Eater, but come on, you know what side you’re on). 

A gif of Voldermort looking mad and evil like

If you need any help along the way, we are here for you.

We have three specific paths to continue with Nerd Fitness:

#1) Our Online Coaching program: a coaching program for busy people to help them make better food choices, stay accountable, and get healthier, permanently.

As I said before, “stress eating” is the number one issued faced by our coaching clients, so we know exactly how to help recognize and address the habit.

You can schedule a free call with our team so we can get to know you and see if our coaching program is right for you:

#2) If you want an exact blueprint leveling up your nutrition, check out Nerd Fitness Journey! Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

If you follow our Mindset missions, you’ll learn to de-stress while earning XP! Sah-weeeet.

Try your free trial right here:

#3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Sign up in the box below to enlist and get our Rebel Starter Kit, which includes all of our “work out at home” guides, the Nerd Fitness Diet Cheat Sheet, and much more!

Alright, I want to hear from you:

Have you been stress eating more over the last year?

Do you have any tips or tricks to interrupt the pattern?

What’s your favorite way to de-stress?

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

P.S. If you’re struggling to keep a normal routine after the pandemic, check out How to Stay in Shape (Without Leaving the House)

###

Photo Source: Plant LEGO, beer5020 © 123RF.com, Programmer, On the couch, LEGO hot dog stand

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36 thoughts on “How to Stop Stress Eating: 3 Uncommon Tools for Ending Emotional Eating

  1. I fell into a pattern of too much alcohol for the first couple of weeks after shelter in place started in my state. Starting an outdoor exercise program is what helped me to realize the alcohol habit was harming me. My runs were so much worse after too much tippling. So at first I limited my drinking to nights that weren’t before a workout. Then I stretched that out further. Now I drink maybe once or twice per week, and I always ask myself, “Is this something you just want for enjoyment, or are you telling yourself you need it?” If the answer is “need it,” I’ll make myself a non-alcoholic cocktail instead. It has helped a lot and hopefully backed me away from alcohol dependency. There’s a risk for it in my family.

    I have one small complaint about the article, though. It’s specifically this line. “If you order pizza every Thursday after talking with your overbearing mom (of course, she means well), step one is to recognize it.”

    I don’t think a lot of people understand how many people come from abusive families or backgrounds. “Your mother means well,” is a very harmful thing people say when the reality is many people have mothers who do not mean well at all, who suffer from personality disorders or are simply malicious and controlling people. “Your mother means well,” is what people hear when they are trying to make sense of their abuse and set boundaries from people who don’t get that motherhood does not confer instant good intentions and unconditional love and can feel shaming to those of us whose mothers do not mean well at all and never have.

    Just a little food for thought.

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  3. I think about food too much when I have access to it, which is all the time right now. When I was going to work I only had the food I brought with me, and the nature of work kept me busy so I wasn’t thinking about it until it was lunchtime. Now, being home all the time, it’s harder to stay away from the fridge/pantry. I also want to eat delicious things that are bad for me, and also feel resentful when I eat the things I’m supposed to be eating. I’ve done fairly well at staying on track, but it’s really hard. I had to give myself one meal a week where I can have whatever I want in order to stay on track.

  4. I found it harder not to eat at work than working at home. At work if I bring any snacks I eat all of them as I don’t have any space where I can take any breaks and have no way to chill. Taking a break is kind of seen as not being committed/team enough, not working hard enough. If I don’t bring snacks, sometimes I get genuinely too hungry for focus. Just my desk in a room of 9 people who work in silence and stare at you if you get up even. Not even a full height cube. (You may not be surprised, then, that I would like to keep working from home!)
    At home I don’t snack as much because I know I can go get something to eat whenever I want. If I get snacky I can tell myself, if you are hungry still in 15 minutes of doing this job, you can go snack. And usually, it goes away (sometimes it doesn’t and if I really want a snack, I will go have one).
    I also put any higher calorie snacks in a box out of sight. So dipping cauliflower in home-made babaganoush is visible, but nutella, fried flava beans, and mochi are not.
    I would love more ideas for the stress menu though. I am still looking for something short and sweet that will take me out of my head. None of the suggestions so far do it for me.
    Whole day scheduling helped me though (Cal Newport style). Being mindful of my stress eating, I have noticed I stress eat more when I have a lot that needs doing but don’t know what to do next. Having a plan all written out means very little pacing into the kitchen procrastinating because deciding what to do is too hard.
    Taking the shame out of stress eating is huge though. I think, given the description above, more than a third of people stress eat. I would not be surprised if only a third of people recognise they stress eat and many more don’t see what they are doing!

  5. So glad to see a post about this!

    When I first started coaching, I didn’t think I stress ate — I just suddenly had bouts where I needed to eat everything in sight.

    After awhile I figured out I wasn’t a robot!

    Tips and tricks that have worked…is fuel myself/go to bed! If I am satisfied from other meals with nutrient dense delicious food….I am less likely to be hungry. If I stay up, I am more likely to fall face first into a bag of gummies.

    Pulling from a stress menu has worked, but once that urge hits, most of the time it is game over….so doing everything I can do keep from walking down that path helps.

  6. Thank you for the “allowing” portion. So often we forget we are human beings, and not robots or machines. I call my process when I’m experiencing a setback, failure, or struggling with a challenge and I don’t show up as my best self – AC/DC. I A- acknowledge the event (“I had a donut”), not in a judgmental way, but in a neutral factual manner. Then I show myself C-compassion. I am a human. I’m not perfect (nobody is). But rather than get on myself, I learn from the event by using the situation as DC-data collection. What can I learn from this going forward? And maybe it’s simply a lesson of “I allow myself to drink a glass of wine on Friday night to kick off the weekend”. But looking at the situation with a scientific lens, rather than emotionally will help us respond to events rather than emotionally react to them.

  7. Great post. I especially like the overall point that we’re emotional creatures and to not feel guilty about having cravings and having to deal with emotional eating.

    One other thing I’ve found that helps me a lot with emotional eating is to ensure I’m consistently eating higher protein, lean meals that are satisfying. Meals like oatmeal and eggs, lean meat salads, protein bars and supplements, fat free Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with an apple, etc.

  8. Thank you! Sometimes it’s hard to control. It’s not for nothing called emotional overeating.
    What helps me to cope with stress and emotions is daily meditation (combined with stretching). And the fact that I don’t keep anything sweet or unhealthy at home makes it easier not to break.

  9. This is such a great time to have this article considering the stressful times we’re all going through right now with the Covid-19, myself for one, and not to mention other stressors we have in life. This is such a great article for realization as to what we’ve been doing, what we need to do, and the reason why. AND, I would not have guessed that you had been overweight. Thank you so much for bringing that to our attention, especially for those of us who are. It helps us feel hope. Great simple tips for distractions too. Again Thank you.

  10. Very interesting read, Steve! Stress eating is quite challenging and severely impacts our health. I think another way to quit stress eating is to bring out your inner chef. Several studies have found that eating home-cooked meals more frequently increases the intake of fruits and vegetables and helps in maintaining an overall healthy diet.

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