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Stress Eating? The Cause of Emotional Eating and How to Get Control

Hi there! I'm Shana, a Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and I help clients regain control of their emotional eating.

What do you crave when you emotionally eat? … kale, quinoa and cauliflower? No! Chips, chocolate, ice cream, right?! The foods you have labeled as “bad”. These are foods that taste really good and also give us a temporary dopamine mood-boost.

Have you ever thought about the fact that you crave the foods that you restrict? You either actively try not to eat them because you think they are bad for you - OR - you mentally restrict them and tell yourself that you shouldn’t eat them even when you do. When we restrict a food (from yourself or a child), we unknowingly put that food on a pedestal. Our mind thinks it’s better and starts wanting it more.

How Intuitive Eating can Help

Intuitive Eating helps with unwanted emotional eating. (Sometimes you make a decision to soothe with food and that’s ok too.) Intuitive Eating is a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.

When you learn to be an intuitive eater, you allow yourself to eat foods that you have previously restricted. You give yourself “permission to eat”. When I was first learning this process, I had a whole list of foods that I restricted. I was restricting to maintain or lose weight but also because I felt that these foods were not healthy and could increase my risk of disease. I still ate them sometimes, but I felt really bad about myself and I would often eat them to a point of not feeling good.

How could I, a Dietitian, help someone else when I couldn’t even help myself?!

Thankfully, I found intuitive eating. I learned that emotional eating is tied to restriction. When you start allowing yourself to eat the foods you truly desire in a mindful way, you will become “habituated” to those foods. Take for instance leftovers. After so many days of eating the same thing over, and over, and over again, you eventually get tired of it and want something else. This is a great example of what I mean by becoming "habituated". Not saying they won’t taste good anymore, but they don’t give you that “fix” anymore.

How to Take Back Control

So, how do I teach clients to take back control of their stress eating? First, we allow ourselves unconditional permission to eat those foods we have labeled as bad. Then, we cue into our emotions and needs.

Next time you are feeling the need to stress eat, pause and ask yourself two questions.

  1. What is it that I am feeling right now? … bored, sad, scared, tired, lonely, embarrassed. You also might actually be hungry! Hunger cues can be more than just a rumbling stomach. Cloudy thinking, trouble concentrating, low energy, irritability and thinking about food can be signs of hunger too.

  2. What is it that I need right now? … This is where we develop other coping skills in addition to eating. Do I need someone to talk to, do I need a nap, do I need a hobby, do I need to pray. Often we need to eat AND utilize another coping skill. Honoring your hunger is a great way to start developing body trust.

Is this going to get you to your goal weight? Probably not, but you’ll gain confidence around food and lose all the food anxiety. You’ll learn that food is good, but the only problem that it can truly solve is hunger. Food is just food.

This is a tough struggle to navigate alone. If you are struggling with stress eating and could use professional, one on one guidance, we would love to help. Click here to learn more about our services and offerings and gain control and freedom over food!


Written by: Shana Cables MS RDN LD, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor


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