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What is the science of emotional eating? (8 Steps for managing stress and making better food choices)

February 22nd, 2023 | 5 min. read

By Jen Azevedo

Have you ever reached for the seventh slice of pizza? The twelfth cookie? The third bowl of ice cream?


You know you are full but at the same time, you are ravenous — ravenous for a sense of calm, peace, or even relief. 


Why is this?


Emotional eating is something most of us do at some time as a reaction to stress. Stress can arise from your work, home, relationships, and more. 


The Paseo Club is a social club in the Santa Clarita Valley. We value fitness, community, and health. We know that physical and mental health are essential to achieve overall well-being.


We wrote this article to help you on your journey to better health. We will explain what emotional eating is, why we do it, how emotional eating is a natural chemical response from cues in your body, and how to manage your stress better so you can make healthier food choices.


What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is eating when you are not hungry. Instead, you eat to numb, soothe, or distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings or situations. 


Emotional eating is often triggered by stress. It can be done on occasion or habitually. 


Why do we eat emotionally?

When we are upset, our bodies release the hormone cortisol. High cortisol levels cause people to crave high-fat and calorie foods because the body is in flight-or-fight mode. 


Our bodies are wired just as they were in ancient times. In the hunter-gatherer era, cortisol was released because you were hunting a predator or were in mortal danger — situations that required an influx of calories.


When you eat sugar-rich and fatty foods endorphins are released in your body, making you feel happier and more relaxed. This gives our minds a mini-vacation from whatever stressors are currently at the forefront of our lives. 


How can you tell if you are emotionally eating?

Learning to pay attention to our body’s cues can be more complicated than it sounds. As much as 75% of eating is emotional eating. That means most of us are emotionally eating at least a portion of the time.


Here are some clues you may be eating due to emotional hunger, not physical.


  • You eat mindlessly and in excess
  • Emotional hunger comes on rapidly
  • You crave only unhealthy high-sugar, high-fat, or high-salt foods
  • You eat past a feeling of fullness, sometimes even to discomfort
  • You feel a sense of shame, guilt, or self-loathing after a bout of eating


8 Steps for managing stress and making better food choices

Emotionally eating on occasion is normal and not a cause for concern. But if you find you are doing it regularly, or it is your primary coping mechanism when you are under stress, then it is time to explore how better to support yourself. 


Below are some concrete steps that you can use to help reduce stress, minimize emotional eating, and create a better relationship with food.

1. Reduce stress

Reducing stress is easier said than done. Sometimes it appears that there is one stressor after another — you sprained your ankle, you argued with a friend, the car broke down, your kid has a cold right when you have an important work deadline… and the list goes on.


Eliminating stress is impossible, but reducing stress is not. Some techniques to better care for yourself are:


  • Exercise
  • Spend time in nature
  • Get enough sleep at night
  • Journal about what is on your mind
  • Socialize with a friend or family member
  • Meditate, pray, or practice deep breathing exercises
  • Explore any lifestyle changes that better support your mental health — enlisting help where needed, eliminating extra demands, creating better work-life balance


2. Stop the shame game

The effects of negative self-talk are significant. Once we feel ashamed of ourselves, it becomes a rabbit hole of self-criticism that runs in multiple directions. 


When we feel ashamed, we feel fundamentally flawed. This experience is different from guilt when we feel bad about a choice we made in an isolated incident. When we see ourselves as inherently defective, we feel hopeless and full of despair.


Turn the tables on shame by:

  • Exploring the source of your shame
  • Bring awareness to how you talk to yourself
  • Seek support from a friend, family member, or professional
  • Being compassionate with yourself (as you would with a friend or loved one)


3. Seek professional help

We are now in an era where the stigma of seeing a professional therapist or counselor is almost gone. People of all ages, backgrounds, incomes, and histories use therapists. 


The role of the therapist is to listen to your concerns and experiences. They help you understand the sources of your triggers and teach you healthy coping mechanisms when you experience stress, anxiety, or worry.


Working with a therapist can help you address the roots of your issues so that you can feel better and be more resilient when you face challenges. 


4. Create support systems

A professional is a part of your support system, but good friends, family, and other members in your community can be as well.


Reaching out to your friends for a coffee date, walk, or phone call is a great way to ask for the help you need. Having someone you can confide in and receive unbiased advice from can provide relief and perspective.


5. Boost your self-care routine

People use food to reward themselves. Occasionally, that is fine to do. But if that is your primary way to pat yourself on the back, explore other avenues.  

  • Sleep in
  • Read a new book
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Watch a favorite show
  • Give yourself positive feedback
  • Get a massage, manicure, or facial
  • Take yourself out for a (healthy) meal


6. Approach each day as the first

Changing habits takes time. Whether it's exercise, smoking, or eating, researchers found that it takes more than two months to make new changes become a part of your routine.


When we feel ashamed of our choices, we believe we cannot change our habits. We feel stuck in a rut and sometimes even give up seeking the improvements we so desperately want.


When you can approach each day as Day 1, then you do not have to feel weighed down about what happened yesterday. This approach helps you feel more empowered to keep trying.


7. Stock your cupboards with healthier treats

Sometimes you want a treat. You’re celebrating or you are exhausted or you want a reward — treats are an inherent part of our food culture.


When your cupboards are stocked with healthier treats, you can still reward yourself without the guilt and sugar/fat/salt intake.

Some healthy treat ideas are:


  • Trail mix
  • Popsicles
  • Acai bowls
  • Meat jerky
  • Chia pudding
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Smoked salmon 
  • Cauliflower pretzels
  • Nut bars such as Lara’s or RxBars
  • Greek yogurt and fruit-sweetened jam
  • Nut or seed-based crackers and cheese
  • Popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast
  • Baked apples, pears, or sweet potatoes (especially good with butter and cinnamon)


8. Find healthier ways to get an endorphin release 

Humans are naturally pleasure-seeking. It can be small pleasures such as getting that prime parking spot in front of the grocery store or the big ones like bungee jumping off a bridge. 


Food is a major vehicle for providing pleasure. Chocolate, pizza, milkshakes, french fries, and many other types of food trigger the brain to release endorphins into the body. Elevated endorphins levels provide a sense of euphoria — something we can be desperate for when we feel stressed.


One hack for avoiding emotional eating is to seek your pleasure elsewhere.

  • Laugh
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Visit with a friend 
  • Watch a favorite show
  • Listen to music (and dance)


Final thoughts on emotional eating

Emotional eating is something we all do some of the time.


But if you find you are frequently eating when you are not hungry and are looking to feel better from the food you consume, then it is time to look at how to better take care of yourself when you are under stress.


Feeling better is often easier to do with the support of friends. That is why the Paseo Club offers weekly social events, group fitness classes, and a cafe for meals and smoothies. These are great avenues to find like-minded people and make new friends.


We offer over 60 exercise classes each week. There are also tennis and pickleball courts and a junior Olympic pool. 


Need some self-care? One aesthetician and two massage therapists staff the spa. Their services are available by appointment.


If you think a community-based fitness club may be a good fit for you, then schedule your tour of the club today.


To learn more about the Paseo Club and healthy living, check out these three articles.




Jen Azevedo

Jen Azevedo is a tennis professional, pickleball professional, personal trainer, group exercise instructor, and the general manager of the Paseo Club. She loves the community at the Paseo Club and that it is also a safe and fun place for her daughter. Jen’s favorite activities are joining her tribe for trail races or her partners for tennis matches. Occasionally Jen slows down to relax with a book — she reads over 100 a year!