After an exhausting and stressful day at work, you're probably tempted to stop on the way home to pick up fast food or takeout for dinner. It's fast, easy, and means that you don't have to cook or clean up. Or maybe you have to stay up all night to finish a project or prepare for a presentation. It seems much more convenient to order a pizza than to cook up some grilled chicken and vegetables. Although these options may be convenient when you are stressed out, they serve a deeper psychological purpose, and I'm not talking about hunger.

Emotional eating has also been linked to weight gain. According to the American Psychological Association survey, 1 in 4 Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale. This means a lot of people are eating to cope with stress. Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said that emotional eating "makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective."

Since the time we are born, we are taught that if we cry, we'll be fed milk.  "That's very comforting to us, so we learn that eating is going to soothe our discomfort," said Malkani. She also said that although some people develop other coping mechanisms as they grow older, emotional eating remains one of the most common.

Emotional eating can be defined as eating for any reason other than physical hunger, said Malkani. She said that people may be using food for comfort to avoid a particularly stressful situation, avoid an uncomfortable feeling, or fill a void. Another common cause of emotional eating is using food as a reward. In the short term, eating may provide a temporary fix, however, it doesn't treat the underlying stress or anxiety and may actually make you feel worse after.

The reason why we may feel worse after is because we think of emotional eating as misbehaving and straying from our regimented diet. "We attach feelings of guilt and shame to emotional eating, and that perpetuates the cycle. When we feel shameful, we tend to isolate ourselves, which can trigger more feelings of stress, which can trigger more emotional eating," said Malkani. Removing the "shame piece" from the equation is one possible way to deal with underlying stress, said Malkani.

Ways to Relieve Stress without Overeating

Meditation. There are many studies that have looked into how meditation relieves stress, most of which have focused on high blood pressure and heart disease, however, experts believe that meditation can help people become more mindful of food choices. Meditation can help you visualize the positive results of your efforts, gain control over your life and eating habits, and help sharpen your focus.

Malkani said that being aware of your hunger levels, creating structure around meals, and increasing awareness of your hunger levels can be very helpful. "When you’ve been emotionally eating, it's really hard to identify your own true physical cues for hunger and satiety. To kind of recalibrate those is a way to get in touch with yourself," said Malkani.

Exercise. Not only does exercise benefit your overall health and sense of well-being, but it can also help you manage your stress. Exercise pumps your endorphins, improves your mood, and allows you to meditate in motion. Yoga and tai chi have elements of meditation and exercise. According to Healthline, physical activity improves the body's ability to use oxygen and improves blood flow. These both have a direct effect on the brain.

Social Support. This can come from friends, family, support groups, therapists, and other sources of social support. People who have stressful jobs have better mental health if they have adequate social support. There are four main types of social support; emotional, informative, tangible, and belonging. Emotional support can be summed up by listening to and validating feelings, letting others know they are valued, and offering a shoulder to cry on. Informative social support involves offering advice, sharing experiences, and referring someone to an expert. Tangible support includes sharing material or financial resources. Belonging social support involves providing social leisure and belonging.

Don't forget that food is meant to be enjoyable and satisfying. You probably won't find the right coping methods overnight. Be patient with yourself. It's important that you find ways to manage your stress that don't make you feel guilty. Malkani said, "It takes time, patience, and compassion with yourself to develop a really healthy relationship with food. There's no perfect road to behavior change."

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