When is eating to relieve stress a problem?

According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), one in four Americans turn to food to help alleviate stress or deal with problems. However, turning to food in an attempt to relieve stress is an unhealthy behavior that can actually lead to health problems that result in increased stress.

Comfort eaters report higher levels of stress than average and exhibit higher levels of all the most common symptoms of stress, including fatigue, lack of energy, nervousness, irritability and trouble sleeping. Comfort eaters are also more likely than the average American to experience health problems like hypertension and high cholesterol. In addition, 65 percent of comfort eaters characterize themselves as somewhat or extremely overweight and are twice as likely as the average American to be diagnosed with obesity.

When is comfort eating bad? Some eating to promote feelings of calm and relaxation is considered well within the range of normal and healthy behavior. However, eating to relieve stress becomes a problem when stress-driven eating becomes excessive and interferes with good health.

Healthier ways to manage stress

If you're in the habit of eating when you're stressed out, you can learn healthier ways to manage stress. The tips below can help you get started:

  1. Learn how to identify the difference between eating for hunger and eating in response to stress. Physical hunger builds gradually, is felt in the stomach, occurs hours after a meal, goes away when full, and eating leads to a feeling of satisfaction. Stress eating develops suddenly, is felt in the mind (having a craving for chocolate), is unrelated to the last time you ate, persists despite fullness, and eating leads to feelings of guilt. When you feel the urge to eat, get in the habit of asking, "Is it physical or is it stress?"
  2. Learn how to face stress-causing problems head-on. Ask yourself: "What specific problems or conflicts are troubling me and how can I deal with each of these problems effectively?"
  3. Engage in healthy activities that give you stress relief, such as: Exercise, meditation, listening to relaxing music, a warm bath, gardening or engaging in a hobby.