Tips on Managing Emotional Eating

by Elisa Olivier-Nielson, MA, Registered Dietition Nutritionist, EON Consulting

We have all experienced very stressful circumstances, especially since 2020. These highly volatile and unpredictable times have caused several changes to our conventional way of life, including our eating habits.

Stress leads to overeating (35% to 60% of people eat more when they are stressed), and it greatly influences the type of foods chosen, with a tendency toward foods higher in fat, salt, sugar and other carbohydrates.

Consequently, the main concern is that stress increases the intake of empty calories to one’s diet leading to excess salt, unhealthy fats and sugar consumption, which in turn may lead to changes on blood sugar, insulin, and stress hormone levels, especially cortisol.

Part of the fight-or-flight reaction, cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to fear or stress. It raises blood sugar levels, raises blood pressure and regulates immune function.

When cortisol levels remain chronically high, it can contribute to the development of high blood pressure, prediabetes, diabetes, obesity, increased abdominal fat, decreased bone mass, brain function changes, memory loss, depression, suicide, insomnia and poor wound healing.

It is important to be aware of whether certain emotions or stress are the driving force behind your eating habits and food choices. Learning techniques for stress management will certainly lower cortisol levels and reduce your chances to develop some of the conditions listed above.

The following suggestions are beneficial to help reduce stress and cortisol levels, and may minimize cravings for less healthy foods:

  • Limit alcohol intake, as it elevates cortisol levels.
  • Replace refined carbohydrates (white rice, white pasta, white breads, sugary drinks, candy, etc.) with complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruit, dark chocolate-dipped nuts, etc.) more often.
  • Choose fatty fish such as salmon, tuna or lake trout at least twice a week.
  • Add a serving of protein with each meal and snack.
  • Sip on unsweetened black or green tea during the day.
  • Chew sugarless gum.
  • Incorporate practices of mindfulness and meditation.
  • Engage in exercise regularly, especially a modality that will help you to relax.
  • Spend quality time with family, friends or a romantic partner.
  • Schedule a fun activity at least once a week.
  • Laugh often.
  • Choose to listen to relaxing music daily.
  • Strive to have at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.