How to Stop Anxiety Eating? 5 Ways to Cope With It

Jul 11, 20249 min
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Dr. Megha
MBBS | Freelance Medical Writer
woman experiencing food anxiety

Ridhi received an email from her boss at 9 in the night saying that the submission date of her “Save the Oceans” project had been preponed, and was due in two weeks. 

She went numb after reading the mail and sat on her bean bag with a pounding heart. 

“Oh my God, this is supposed to be my best shot at getting that promotion. Will I get it? Will I be able to give it my all in two weeks? I have always been the best at what I do, but now I'm going to mess it up big time, and everyone’s going to laugh at me." 

Ridhi felt as if a storm had taken over her brain. She got up in a hurry, walked towards the refrigerator, and was delighted to find a box of unfinished Krispy Kreme doughnuts. She gobbled down all five of them mindlessly and felt immediate relief. “Phew, that helped." The storm had subsided. 

What do you think might have happened to Ridhi here? 

Ever heard of something called anxiety eating? Before we delve into that, let's get a quick understanding of what anxiety means. 

Anxiety is a natural emotion that you experience when you're confronted with something stressful or a major life event, such as a deadline at work or an upcoming exam. You might experience feelings of constant fear, worry, tension, and physical changes like restlessness and a rapid heartbeat. 

Like we saw in the case of Ridhi, some people, when anxious or stressed out, might turn to food to feel more in control. Initially, it might start in a very controlled manner, but if it becomes a habit, things might go haywire. Eating when you're stressed can feel quite rewarding, but continuously doing it to curb your stress can gradually lead to something called anxiety eating or stress/emotional eating, which is quite a familiar term to many these days. 

If neglected for long, anxiety eating has the potential to harm your body not only mentally but also physically, and may put you at a higher risk of developing several health problems. 

What is Anxiety Eating? 

Anxiety Eating or stress eating refers to using food as a coping mechanism to feel better about oneself. Here, eating food is not related to physical hunger but is rather done to bring a sense of control and comfort over one's raging emotions. 

Under immense anxiety, individuals often seek temporary relief in foods that are snackable and may end up eating more than the body's nutritional requirement. This pattern of overeating is triggered by the release of cortisol, commonly known as the ‘stress hormone' (the name says it all). Once the bout of eating ends, the person feels more at ease. The connection between cortisol and overeating will be discussed in the next section of this piece.

Despite knowing the consequences of overeating, it tends to prevail among some people and is largely due to the temporary comfort that they experience from all the negative emotions they feel. This sets the person into a cycle of anxiety followed by a round of overeating, thereby forming a habit. 

Now, please do not confuse the occasional cravings for your favourite pizza or a simple nostalgic meal with anxiety eating. These are nothing but comfort foods. Although it might sound similar to anxiety eating, there is a significant difference. 

Comfort foods are the kind that make someone feel at home. A comfort meal is usually associated with good memories or events from the past and brings a sense of well-being. It also varies from person to person. On the other hand, in chronic anxiety eating, people may have an emotional dependence on food every time they're anxious or stressed. 

What Causes Anxiety Eating? 

One may wonder why we often turn to food for relief when we are stressed. Well, as complex as our bodies are, so are our minds. 

Under stress and emotional triggers, the adrenal gland in our body releases cortisol. High levels of cortisol can make one crave foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat. So under emotional distress, the individual reaches out for their favorite food article and usually ends up eating more. This temporary relief after anxiety eating marks the release of dopamine (the “happy hormone”) and the return of cortisol levels to normal, making the person feel emotionally more regulated. 

The real problem arises when it reaches a point where the individual's emotions get intertwined with their eating habits, plunging them into an unhealthy overeating cycle. In 2001, a study was conducted on 59 healthy women to see the link between stress-induced cortisol and eating behaviour. It was observed that psychophysiological stress may lead to overeating patterns and subsequent weight gain. 

For some individuals, food is also about diverting their attention from the negative or uncomfortable emotions.  For example, they are able to “escape” from the burden of sadness or frustration after having an argument with their near and dear ones. In this case, instead of talking it out or seeking support to manage what they're feeling, they would rather compensate by digging into a big tub of ice cream. 

Another rather interesting cause of anxiety eating is to bring in an act of emotional exchange. Sounds a little unusual, right? Well, this is the case for some individuals. They may know deep down that they'll feel guilty or bad about themselves after the episode of overeating, but they choose to do it anyway because they find it better to deal with the guilt than the immense anxiety they're experiencing at the moment. 

Additionally, it has been observed that individuals with personality traits such as perfectionism, impulsivity, and a need for control are more susceptible to developing anxiety eating.

While food may help us soothe ourselves when we are feeling anxious, some of us may also experience anxiety related to food consumption.

Why Do I Feel Anxious When Eating? 

One thing you have to bear in mind is that food anxiety cannot be attributed to a single reason. Given below are a few key factors based on research: 

  1. Social media influence: today, many influencers on social media platforms promote the ideology of a “perfect” body image and shame people who don't diet or workout the “right” way. 
  2. Large social gatherings: even though get-togethers are happy moments for many, they can be a major trigger for people dealing with food anxiety. 
  3. Self-criticism and negative thinking: people tend to degrade themselves a lot during casual conversations with friends and family. It has also been observed that continuous self-criticism lowers self-esteem, and worsens already-existing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. 
  4. Cultural values and beliefs: culturally, we value being slim or ‘thin’ as healthy and beautiful. Such beliefs can cause some people to have food anxiety and eating disorders. 
  5. Genetic correlation: people with family members who have had anxiety and eating disorders are more susceptible to developing them in the future. Research has shown that some of the mental health problems run in families; different types of anxiety and eating disorders are among them. 

Individuals with underlying conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder, OCD and social anxiety, have also shown dependence on food by channeling their anxiety towards food. People with social anxiety might skip meals or eat very little food because of their constant fear of being judged and analyzed by people around them. Whereas people with OCD may stick to only certain foods or heavily restrict the amounts of food they consume. In severe cases, these have the potential to lead to eating disorders. 

How to stop Anxiety Eating?

5 Ways to Cope with Anxiety Eating 

The next time you find it difficult to keep your hands off food when you're stressed, do not feel disheartened. You might find the following self-help methods useful in the long run: 

Maintain a food journal: 

Yes, you read that right. The next time you have a meal, jot down what you eat, how much you eat and when you eat. Analyze your energy level, mood, and overall satisfaction after the meal. Also, be watchful of what exactly triggers you to start another cycle of stress eating and make a note of that too. and make a note of that too. Like connecting the dots, this will help you identify specific eating patterns and also enable you to get an idea about the quantity of food you consume when you're anxiously eating. Additionally, it helps you cultivate a healthy eating habit over time.

Schedule your meals:

Irrespective of your emotional state, the longer you delay your meals, the more likely you are to overeat. Fix regular time intervals to have your meals. This helps to limit your urge for anxiety eating and also control portion sizes. Rather than having a whole brunch in one sitting, try and break it down into simpler meals, preferably within a time gap of 3-4 hours. 

Check for real hunger cues: 

If you feel like reaching out for a meal or snack, do a reality check to see if the hunger is physical or emotional. If you had a meal just a couple of hours ago, it is likely that the hunger is stress-induced or emotional. If it's been sufficient time since you last ate, have a proper meal depending on your body's requirements. This helps you to distinguish between real and anxiety-induced hunger and also cuts down on the cycles of anxiety eating. 

Deroute from your usual plans: 

Sounds odd? It's more effective than you think. So, here's what you can do. The next time you feel anxious, instead of ransacking your kitchen for sugary and fat-filled snacks, get out of your house and go for a walk or a quick drive — not to the nearest burger place but somewhere breezy and calm like the beach or a garden. If you're not in the mood to get out, try other simple yet effective measures like yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, or listening to your favourite melody. Developing and practising a new hobby will also do. This way, you'll learn to tackle your emotions and train your brain to find other methods to channel the anxiety. 

Learn and grow from setbacks: 

Despite trying out the methods, if you have an episode of anxiety eating, try to not be harsh on yourself. Instead, try to focus on the baby steps you have been taking to work with your issues. Each failed experience is a new lesson to learn from. Try to think about what you can do differently next time. Always remember to give yourself the credit you deserve as living with anxiety and its repercussions is not easy. This also helps you to develop a more positive outlook on life as a whole. 

When to seek professional help for anxiety eating 

If you or your loved one have tried the above self-help methods but are still finding it difficult to control anxiety eating, you may consider getting therapy from a mental health professional. Therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) can help you understand why you resort to food every time you're in emotional distress. It can also help you identify the root cause of why you're feeling anxious and if there are any more serious underlying conditions to it, such as an eating disorder

Why do you get anxious after eating? 

Apart from feeling anxious due to emotional overload, certain physical conditions can evoke anxiety after eating. 

For example, many people have food sensitivities. It isn't the same as a food allergy, although the symptoms are similar. 

The common symptoms include:

● Bloating 

● Diarrhea 

● Abdominal pain 

● Flushing of the skin 

● Headache 

● Rashes 

● Abdominal pain 

Other physical causes of anxiety after eating include conditions such as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and breathing issues

Please do not consider anxiety after eating equivalent to genuine post-meal anxiety due to physical conditions as mentioned above. Anxiety after eating has classic symptoms of anxiety, as discussed in the beginning of the article. 

What to Eat in Anxiety Disorder 

Confused about what to eat as someone struggling with anxiety disorder? 

Here's a list of 11 food items you can consume that may promote a feeling of calmness and ease your anxiety: 

  1. Almonds 
  2. Blueberries 
  3. Dark chocolate 
  4. Green leafy vegetables 
  5. Citrus fruits 
  6. Whole grains 
  7. Green tea 
  8. Bell peppers 
  9. Egg, chicken (any source of lean protein) 
  10. Yoghurt 
  11. Salmon 

6 foods to avoid if you have anxiety 

For every good, there's a bad. So here's a list of food items that could worsen the symptoms of anxiety that you should be mindful of: 

  1. Energy drinks and sodas 
  2. Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, white flour or maida)
  3. Alcohol 
  4. Coffee 
  5. Processed foods 
  6. Ketchup (contains less tomatoes and more sugar, unbelievable, right?!)

Conclusion 

Anxiety eating can be a quite challenging condition to live with. Food and its link to anxiety being the pivotal factor here, not falling into the cycle of unhealthy eating is not easy. Finding healthier coping strategies and making them work to navigate through daily life situations also requires a great deal of effort. Making smarter and healthier food choices, coupled with therapy (if needed), can help overcome anxiety eating. 

References

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  2. admin. (2021, September 28). Connection Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders | Toledo Center. Toledo Center | Eating Disorders Treatment Center.
  3. Connection Between Anxiety and Eating Disorders | Toledo Center. Toledo Center Eating Disorders Treatment Center. 
  4. Mayo Clinic. (2018, February 22). Eating disorders . Mayo Clinic; Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 
  5. Mayo Clinic. (2018, February 22). Eating disorders . Mayo Clinic; Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
  6. How to Stop Anxiety Eating | 5 Ways to Cope. (n.d.). Withinhealth.com.
  7. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. (2019). Eating Disorder Hope.
  8. Mayo Clinic. (2022, December 2). Tips to stop emotional eating. Mayo Clinic.  
  9. Lindberg, S. (2021, January 20). Why Do I Eat When I’m Stressed? Healthline.
  10. The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances. (2018, January 25). Healthline.
  11. How You Can Deal With Anxiety After Eating. (2022, January 5). Psych Central.
  12. Elliott, B. (2017, July 9). 6 Foods That Help Reduce Anxiety. Healthline.
  13. In a Funk? Here’s How to Shake It Off. (n.d.). WebMD. 

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Dr. Megha
MBBS | Freelance Medical Writer
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