Eating as a Coping Mechanism + 4 Healthy Ways to Manage Stress

May 4, 2020

In times of stress, it’s pretty common to turn to a vice, or unhealthy habit, to try to cope with your situation. For some people, it’s smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or shopping or splurging on unnecessary or lavish items. And for some, it’s food. That’s right—using eating as a coping mechanism is actually a common practice. But it can very quickly turn into an unhealthy one.

In fact, I’m reminded of a story that a friend once shared with me. When she was a freshman in college and facing her first round of final exams, she was completely overwhelmed. One night, while trying to “cram” for her finals, her roommate brought her a large bag of potato chips, knowing they were one of her favorite treats.

Over the next two hours, my friend mindlessly ate the entire bag! As you can imagine, she became pretty sick afterward and almost missed taking one of her exams the following morning! She’d used eating as a coping mechanism to deal with her stress—and it ended up almost causing her to fail a class.

The truth of the matter is that using eating as a coping mechanism is probably far more common than you’d believe. And it comes with some serious potential health consequences. Keep reading to learn more about how common it is, why this occurs, and healthier alternatives to help you manage stress and anxiety.



Eating as a Coping Mechanism: How Common is Emotional Eating?

Do you ever find yourself mindlessly eating junk foods during times of stress? Do you tend to eat larger meals at a faster pace when you’re anxious or overwhelmed? Perhaps you turn to a pint of ice cream when you’re upset or go through a drive-through for a large order of fries and a soda after a tough day at work.

On the flip side, have you ever suddenly realized that you’ve been so stressed out that you forgot to eat—only to then overindulge? Whatever the situation, if you find that your stress load or mood impacts your eating habits, you aren’t alone.

Many Americans report using eating as a coping mechanism, which is also known as emotional eating—using food to help yourself feel better. [1] Here’s a look at how stress affects your eating habits, according to the Stress in America Survey: [2]

  • 38 percent of adults say stress caused them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods in the past month.
  • 33 percent of those adults said overeating or eating unhealthy foods helps to distract them from stress.
  • 27 percent of adults say they regularly eat to manage stress.
  • 30 percent of adults report skipping a meal in the last month due to stress.
  • Stress causes you to crave high-calorie, high-fat foods and causes your body to store more fat than when you're relaxed.


Eating as a coping mechanism - Dr. Pingel


As you can see, about one-third of all Americans use eating as a coping mechanism on a regularly basis. Perhaps not coincidentally, the CDC reported in 2016 that 39.8 percent of adults aged 20 and over were obese—and a whopping 71.6 percent were considered to be overweight! [3] With the rise of chronic disease in America, including weight-related conditions, it’s easy to see why it’s so important that we learn to manage stress and other concerns in heathier ways.

But it still begs this question: In an age where we have so much available at our fingertips, why do so many people still turn to food to help them manage their stress, anxiety, or other concerns? Let’s take a closer look ….

The Top 3 Causes of Emotional Eating

There are many reasons people turn to eating as a coping mechanism. But here are three of the top causes in our modern society.

1. Trying to manage stress

Think back to the last time you were stressed. If you consider your feelings in that moment, odds are that the words “overwhelmed,” “scared,” “anxious,” and/or “concerned” come to mind. And in times like those, we tend to naturally seek comfort. What’s more comforting than indulging in a treat you know you love? After all, there’s a reason certain foods and dishes are known as “comfort food.”

Interestingly, research has shown that experiencing consistent or chronic stress impacts your food choices and can lead to eating as a coping mechanism. In times of stress, researchers have discovered that you’re significantly more likely to choose energy-dense foods such as those high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and calories, which ultimately leads to obesity. [4] In fact, certain studies have found that chronic life stress is linked in weight gain and obesity—to a greater effect in men than in women. [5]

2. Dealing with unpleasant emotions

Likewise, think back to a time where you felt let down—whether it’s from a friend, romantic partner, family member, or even due to losing out on a job. If you think about words that would describe your feelings, perhaps words such as “alone,” “rejected,” “abandoned,” or even “empty” would spring forward. Instinctively, if you’re feeling “empty,” reaching for a favorite food would make you feel like you’re being filled up, right?

You may be surprised to learn that this behavior doesn’t start in the adult world, though. Scientists have actually found that worries surrounding academics, grades, and even overall academic self-esteem are linked to higher instances of emotional eating in teens. In fact, they discovered that up to 60 percent of children and teens use eating as a coping mechanism—a fact that researchers believe is connected to the fact that childhood obesity has become a public health epidemic in recent years. [6]

This shows that we need to take a closer look at how we view food as a society and what we’re teaching our youth in terms of healthy eating habits.

3. Treating food as a reward

It’s pretty common in our society to celebrate an achievement or big occasion by indulging in a large, grand meal or “treating” ourselves to a decadent dessert. How often have we celebrated with our kids by taking them out for ice cream or a special food-based treat? And while there’s nothing wrong with having dessert, researchers have found a shocking link between viewing food as a reward and future health concerns.

Studies have shown that viewing food as a reward can actually cause your brain to override the basic signals that you’re full! [7] Now, think about this for a minute: If you’re so focused on how great you’re feeling because you’re getting a reward, you’re going to miss the signals from your body telling you it’s time to stop eating. This can result in a myriad of health concerns, from blood sugar spikes to digestive difficulties to unhealthy weight gain.

4 Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Fortunately, there are many healthier coping mechanisms you can choose over emotional eating. Here are a few of my top tips.

1. Choose events or experiences over food.

As we discussed above, if you find that you’re using eating as a coping mechanism, it’s likely this could be a learned behavior from your childhood. Let’s use our example of going out for ice cream with your parents as a reward or treat. The reason why the ice cream becomes as reward is not the ice cream itself—it’s the event. Think about it: You got to go somewhere out-of-the-norm with your parents.

You likely spent time feeling happy, laughing, and making positive memories you’ll look back on fondly for years. When you’re feeling down or stressed, it’s common to turn to whatever made you feel good as a kid. And it’s also common to pass these feel-good experiences on to your kids as well.

So, how can you choose event or experiences over food? Whenever you’re stressed, overwhelmed, or down, try to think of an event or positive memory from childhood that doesn’t revolve around food. Perhaps you have a pleasant memory of playing basketball in the driveway with your dad or playing an instrument or game with your mom. Whatever it is, try to recreate that experience either with your partner, friends, or kids.

And speaking of your kids, if you find that they’re overwhelmed, choose a healthy food option and sit down to talk with them about what’s going on. Find a healthy way to discuss their stress or concerns. And if they’ve done something that deserves a reward, consider options that don’t revolve around food. Perhaps a special outing to play mini golf or to see a movie. Make it about the experience, and you’ll find that eating as a coping mechanism will happen less frequently.

2. Try Reiki.

If you aren’t familiar with reiki, here’s a quick overview of what it is and how you can use it in place of eating as a coping mechanism.

First developed in Japan more than a century ago, reiki is a healing session performed by a reiki practitioner. The practitioner uses certain hand positions to help direct life force energy within your personal energy field.

During a session, you remain fully clothed and the practitioner will either touch you lightly or hold his or her hands just above your body. Some will also lay crystals on your body to facilitate the movement of energy. It’s intended to be a relaxing service that’s performed in a dimly lit room with aromatherapy.

Interestingly, research has shown that reiki can help to calm your nervous system and even help lower blood pressure. [8] Additional studies have shown that it can also help those struggling from pain and/or anxiety. [9]

3. Turn to movement.

I know that when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, the last thing you probably want to do is exercise. But the truth is that moving causes your body release endorphins that will help you overcome your less desirable feelings.

The good news is that you don’t have to get in a hardcore workout to reap these benefits. You can simply walk around your neighborhood, go for a bicycle ride or even just turn on some music and dance around your living room. Pick a form of movement that you find to be fun and incorporate some movement whenever you feel the urge to use eating as a coping mechanism. You’ll not only feel better physically after moving your body, but you’ll also get an esteem boost by knowing you used a healthy coping mechanism to deal with your situation.

4. Learn to cook healthy foods.

Learning to cook healthy foods that taste great can help you incorporate healthier choices in times of stress. Look, it’s inevitable that you’ll crave a sweet or decadent treat. The key is to choose a healthier option so you’re not sabotaging your health if you continue to struggle with emotional eating.

Some ideas? Try my delicious chocolate chip cookie recipe, which features healthy, whole-food ingredients, or this homemade peach ice cream, which includes calming lavender. Just keep in mind that you need to be mindful of any foods you’re eating and concentrate on the nutritional content you’re consuming, which will help support both your stress management and your overall health.


Key Takeaways

  • Using eating as a coping mechanism is a common practice during times of stress or overwhelm.
  • As many as one-third of Americans report regularly using eating as a coping mechanism. Perhaps not surprisingly, our rates of overweight and obesity, as well as obesity-related diseases, are on the rise.
  • The top three causes of emotional eating are: trying to manage stress, dealing with unpleasant emotions, and treating food as a reward.
  • Alternative, healthier ways to cope with stress and unpleasant emotions include: choosing experiences over food, trying reiki, becoming more active, and learning how to cook healthier foods.
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