In the moment, a snack can seem like just the thing to stave off boredom, loneliness, depression or even anxiety. Sometimes it’s an occasional bout of emotional eating; other times, stress or even an anxiety disorder can fuel overeating.
Stress unleashes the hormone cortisol, which can whet your appetite. 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,” says Melissa Majumdar, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Munching can also serve as a distraction from whatever’s really bothering you.
But eating to quell anxiety—rather than hunger—isn’t a winning strategy. It sets you up for more eating and possibly weight gain, not to mention a bout of beating yourself up about all that snacking. Meanwhile, the underlying issues persist.
Whether you have an anxiety disorder or you’re facing ongoing stress in your life, a few simple tips can help tame anxiety eating.
Aim for balance
It’s not the carrots and the broccoli that people tend to go for when they’re anxious. It’s anything packed with sugar or fat. You’re probably not likely to overdo it on something like grilled chicken breast, says 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 hangry all over again; you’re on a collision course with more emotional 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,” says 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, she says.
Eat at regular intervals
The longer you go without eating, the more likely you are to overeat, whether you’re anxious or not.
“You’ve had a long, stressful day, you’re hungry, you’re [more likely] to overeat,” says Dena Cabrera, executive clinical director of the Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders. “It’s a perfect storm.”
Instead of over-filling yourself at 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 anxiety. “The goal is to feel satisfied and not turn to food,” says Cabrera.
Recent research suggests 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 in February 2017, 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 anxiety.
Create a safe eating environment
That means not eating in front of the TV or your computer. Instead, try eating at the kitchen table or, even better, in the dining room, where you’re away from the fridge full of food.
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,” says Majumdar, 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 anxious, don’t drive by your favorite fast-food restaurant on the way home. Even if you’re just in the habit of stopping there for a Diet Coke, says 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 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 says.