Emotional or stressful eating is when you consume more food than you regularly should under stressful and emotional environments, according to Laura Lange, Director of the Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery Program at Eating Recovery Center, Illinois. In times of stress your body produces increased amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone. Eating unhealthy foods with high amounts of sugar and fat actually dampens that cortisol level.
"I always tell my patients that you're doing something because it actually makes you feel better. It's because your cortisol is actually dampening," Lange said.
Lange treats patients for various eating disorders like binge eating, which is the most common disorder in the country. If stress eating is not taken care of over time, it could turn to a binge eating disorder with multiple health risks like high blood pressure and diabetes.
The problem with dampening our cortisol production with food is that it will become reinforced over and over again, according to Lange. Our appetites will increase during stressful situations, creating a cycle of emotional eating.
For Kara Richardson-Whitely, who struggled with binge eating and depression at a young age, the pandemic made her fearful of the emotions it could bring out.
"I think for me, I was most worried about falling back into the despair that dovetails with my binge eating, because there was so much going on," said Richardson-Whitely, an advocate at the Eating Recovery Center and the author of "Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds."
Lange said overcoming emotional eating starts with restructuring your routine and creating coping mechanisms that work for you.
Richardson-Whitely and Lange shared their tips to conquer emotional eating during the pandemic and beyond.
1. Create a structure that works for you
Richardson-Whitely said that to combat emotional eating, she turned to a set of skills that she learned in therapy to cope with the stresses of life, and that during the pandemic she recreated a daily structure.
"I needed to stay really active, and kind of go back to the basics of what I learned when I was working with an eating disorder specialist," she said.
Some of those things were focusing on eating by the clock and making an effort to sit down and eat with her family even if just for 15 minutes. She says if you are away from family, plan your meals by setting up a virtual Zoom date to fend off the isolation, which is a major pandemic stressor.
Creating a routine and structure around your meals is a step toward making healthy habits, Lange said. Even under stressful situations, you should nourish your body with three meals and two snacks a day. Lange also recommends writing down what you plan to do daily, including activities and hobbies, and structuring your plans around your schedule. That also includes organizing your pleasurable activities and hobbies, which decrease that cortisol to the brain.
2. Do some body work to calm down
The pandemic and news events across the globe can make it difficult to manage stress, but it's the most important tactic to beating emotional eating, experts say. We tend to gravitate toward foods when we are bored, have negative thoughts, are anxious or are overthinking, Lange says. In times like these, we need more self-compassion.
Lange advises patients with eating disorders to do what she calls "body work" to calm their bodies. Deep breathing exercises and practicing mediation are great places to start. Connecting with loved ones and setting boundaries on the use of electronics are other ways to calm the body and reconnect.
Another calming mechanism is using your senses to ground yourself, which calms the nervous system, Richardson-Whitely explained. A sensory experience can bring you back to the present moment when overwhelmed.
"I'll put my hands on the cool countertop just to feel them," she said. "I'll make myself a cup of tea so I can feel the warmth of the tea cup and seal the scene of the aroma of the tea. That's the only way that I will get through this because pushing it away is only going to lead to a more complicated relationship with food."
3. Focus on sleep hygiene and avoid diet culture
Stresses put a major damper on our bodies by the end of each day, which is why creating a structured sleep routine is important. Lange says just like eating has a treatment plan, so does sleeping. Set a limit for caffeine intake so your body is more relaxed when it is time for bed. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep is critical to lowering stress levels and anxieties.
Limiting screen time may be even more important, she said. Decreasing the time spent on your phone doesn't just help you sleep better, but it can also help combat another added stress inducer: diet culture.
"I think it's really harmful," Lange said. "There's a lot of pressure to lose weight during this time, and just trying to lose weight and diet will increase stress and emotional eating."
Social media users have repurposed the old "freshman 15" trope, dubbing overeating and weight gain during the pandemic the "COVID 15." Lange says a lot of ads for health care supplements are masquerading as weight loss pills during this time. Not only is that harmful to people's bodies, but to their minds too, resulting in negative eating behavior.
"Be mindful of what you are consuming. If you are consuming too much diet culture, change your Instagram. Change your Facebook and really put body positive kind of influencers on your Instagram or newsfeed," Lange recommends.
4. Seeking out help
When Richardson-Whitely was younger, she believed her overeating was because of willpower. Now she knows she just needed the resources to understand that it was the stresses of life that contributed to her eating.
Her advice: Seek out help and remember you are not alone.
A silver lining in the pandemic is the accessibility of resources that are now available virtually, says Lange. One service provided by Eating Recovery Center is a virtual overcoming eating support group. There can be a lot of misunderstanding among family and friends about what emotional eating is, which is why spending time in a like-minded group and working with experts can be so impactful .
For more information on eating disorders, including warning signs and how to find support and help, visit the National Eating Disorders Association. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the toll-free National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 800-950-NAMI.