How to Identify Stress Hunger & Stop Emotional Eating

How to Identify Stress Hunger & Stop Emotional Eating

Ever catch yourself emotional eating a whole bag of chips and think, “Why did I do this? I wasn’t even hungry!” You’re not alone—we’ve all succumbed to “stress hunger.” Here’s how to spot it—and stop it—next time!

Every year, our local NAMI chapter sets up wellness conferences in celebration of Mental Health Awareness. This past year, I was asked to present my workshop, “How to Stop Emotional Eating,” which is based on the books I’ve written. It has been a while since I’ve written on this subject, so I thought it would be good information to share again.

What Is “Stress Hunger”?

First, let’s talk about stress hunger… This is when you are not physically hungry but your emotions, in response to stress, are trying to tell you otherwise.

You seek out comfort foods to provide relief to what is really an emotional or mental problem: negative, unhelpful stress and anxiety.

When stress hunger strikes, which type of foods do you crave:

  • SALTY foods?
  • SWEET foods?
  • OR BOTH?!

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.…

The Stress Response

First, the bad news—hunger is part of our wired stress response. This means we may not be able to stop it completely.

Now the GOOD NEWS—there is a healthy way to manage stress hunger.

… And that is by using the two-step process I teach in my workshop.

How to Manage Emotional Eating

Step 1: Identify the SOURCE

Before you reach for the pantry door, pause and reflect:

Are you feeling physical hunger or stress hunger?

(Use the handout below to help you figure it out!)

Step 2: Take ACTION!

  • If you’re experiencing physical hunger, FEED it!
    (Satisfy this hunger with healthful foods that are nutrient-dense and filling.)
  • If you’re dealing with stress hunger, FEEL IT & RELEASE IT!
    (Use healthy tools to let the stress out! This could be journaling, exercising, meditating, connecting with a friend or loved one, playing outside with your children or pets, spending some time on your hobby, etc.)

There is a handout I give during the workshop to make this a little easier. You can download it by clicking below!

Click Here To Download Emotional Eating Handout

Indulging without Excess

At times, there is another LifeTOOL I use to help me manage my stress hunger: “harm reduction.”

This is when I check in with myself, recognize that I’m dealing with stress hunger (not physical hunger), and then I decide to go ahead and eat what I am craving … but only in a limited quantity!

Here are some examples of how I indulge without overdoing it:

  • Instead of buying big, quart-sized containers of ice cream (I could eat the whole thing!), I only buy a small container or a single-serving mini cup.
  • Instead of buying a BIG bag of chips, I only buy a small one.
  • Instead of buying a whole pie or box of cookies (again, I could eat them all!), I just buy a single slice of pie or one cookie at the store’s bakery section.

What Is “Harm Reduction”?

Why do I call this “harm reduction”? And why do I think it’s wise to indulge a craving, in moderation, from time to time?

Because when we deprive ourselves of something, we risk setting up the urge to binge!

With harm reduction, we set ourselves up to minimize the harm!

Let me know some of the strategies you have used when your emotions and stress levels compel you to eat. Share them in the comment box below!

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About Carol Rickard, LCSW

Carol Rickard is stress & wellness expert who teaches people how to take control of anxiety and stress in as little as 60 seconds using a groundbreaking system she developed during her 30 years of clinical practice. She's been a featured expert in media including Readers Digest, Woman's World Magazine, and Dr. Oz's The Good Life. Carol has trained organizations such as NJ State Police, Philadelphia International Airport, Princeton University, Fox Chase Cancer Center, and US Department of Energy. Want To Cut Anxiety & Stress In 1/2? Go to -

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