7 Signs You Are Stress Eating

stress eating

Are You a Stress Eater?

By: Costa Provis, LCPC, CPC

Stress eating is one of those things that can be hard to know you are doing until after it happens. You know what I am talking about, right? This is when you scarf down an entire bag of chips or inhale a row of cookies without thinking about it.

Usually, stress eating occurs when we are dealing with a lot of anxiety or feeling major pressure. The worst part about stress eating is that the urge to munch can hit us at the worst times; like just before bed or in the middle of the night!

There are a variety of reasons that people stress eat, but the main causes have to do with the neuro-chemistry of the human brain. When carbohydrates are consumed and digested, they produce serotonin, which has a lot to do with your mood. Generally speaking, the higher your serotonin levels the happier you become. But (and there’s always a but) …

When an excess of serotonin is produced as a response to stress, it can make your mood bounce around like a basketball. These highs and lows can make you feel energetic and then later, sluggish, which may explain why you are reaching for cookies and chips. Complicating matters are issues like Seasonal Affective Disorder , a condition that causes some folks crave carbs during the darkness of winter.

Stress Eating: Stress Response

Generally speaking, stress eating (also referred to as emotional eating) is a conditioned response for dealing with anxiety. Depending upon your background, food may have historically brought you comfort or acted as a reward for completing a task. Over the course of time, these behaviors can become second nature, making you engage in activities (responses) that are familiar.

Are there subconscious causes as well? Perhaps but knowing what they are will require that you engage in talk-therapy to discover their roots!

What follows are 7 signs that you may be engaging in stress eating. Below each sign are some helpful tips to help you become more aware of your eating habits through the construct of mindfulness. If you are concerned about your eating behaviors, you are encouraged to talk to your doctor provider for a general checkup. Sometimes, a change in appetite can be an indication of a medical issue.

Are you ready for the 7 signs of stress eating? Let’s jump right in!

stress eating


1. Eating more than usual

Any time you begin to notice that you are eating more food, or eating different foods that you normally do, this may be a good indication that you are stress eating. Consider the factors that could be stressing you out, as well as other factors that may be changing your diet.

2. Increase in weight

This factor may actually cause you to eat more if you are not careful. Gaining weight is stressful for many people, and can paradoxically cause you to eat more, creating a never-ending cycle of scarfing down bad food. Again, talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your weight gain to rule out any medical issues.

3. Binge Eating

This is one of the biggest signs. Coming home after a long day of work and heading to the fridge for quick “bites” and scarfs usually indicates you are stressing. What many people find helpful to prevent this kind of behavior is to eat small meals throughout the day so feel satiated.

Also, having a meal planned for the evening can psychologically help you to not reach for the bad foods as soon as you get home. What would it be like if you put a chicken in a crock-pot before you left for work so that it was all ready to eat when you arrive home?

4. Grazing

Grazing refers to the act of constantly eating or nibbling on food over a long period of time, without consciously thinking about the food you are eating. Grazing may be something as simple as eating a lot of peanuts, or may be more severe if you are eating a large amount of food constantly.

Eating small meals throughout the day can help to prevent grazing. Exercise also has been found to help reduce anxiety and stress, which are major causes of stress eating. Even small amounts of physical activity can help as a stress coping response. What would it be like to join a gym and start doing cardio? Maybe hire a personal trainer to help keep you motivated to stick with a wellness plan?

5. Eating Without Hunger

Some people find that they reach for food even though they are not hungry. This goes back to what was mentioned earlier about stress eating being a conditioned response.

What may be helpful in these situations is to begin asking yourself: what am I aware of before you reach for those chips or candy bars. Sometimes, just building awareness around our eating activities can create meaningful change.

6. Eating Junk Foods

Once again, this type of eating mirrors both 1 and 4, but eating junk foods all the time without having regular meals is a good indicator that you are stress eating. Is your body looking for a sugar high? If so, why might this be?

Consider the possibility that your cravings are caused by stress and think about healthier alternatives. Examples include fruits and nuts. FYI: increasing your physical activity and eating several small meals throughout the day can help in this area.

7. Late Night Snacks

Late night snacking can be an indication of stress. Most people find that the urge hits them just before bed. This is because they begin to think about all of the things they need to do the following day, which in turn acts as a stress trigger to eat.

One thing you may wish to consider is meditating an hour or two before bedtime. Meditation can help you to become centered and calm, which helps you avoid stress eating. FYI: When you are in a state of deep meditation, you change your body’s biorhythm, something that helps to recondition that stress response we’ve been talking about.


Final Thoughts

In order to combat the weight gain and other negative effects of binge and stress eating, consider healthier alternatives. Cutting out the junk food and snacking on fruits, vegetables or light snacks such as granola or raisins will allow you to unwind without overloading your belly. 

It is important to catch yourself when stress eating, so keep an eye out for any of the aforementioned signs in order to monitor your own eating habits and stay healthy. Many people find working with a therapist helpful in identifying triggers for stress eating. What’s great about having your own personal wellness counselor is that you can share things in confidence and not have to worry about being judged.

I am including a book recommendation, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Albers to help you find different ways for dealing with anxiety other than food.

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