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Stress Eating, Emotional Eating, Boredom Eating… What’s the difference?

photo by mad faith photography

These phrases are thrown around interchangeably, but are they actually the same?

Stress Eating

Stress eating is essentially the behavior of using food as comfort in times of stress. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 27% of adults use food to manage stress.

When we’re stressed, our body increases the release of cortisol. High levels of cortisol lead us to crave hyperpalatable foods (read: high fat, high sugar foods). Why?

Because in terms of evolution, the body needs sugar to fuel the fight or flight response to stress. *Insert modern days when most of us have adequate energy stores from easy access to food.*

This once evolutionary mechanism is now a default response. In fact, one in 3 adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress (aka stress eating) say that this behavior is a habit.

It’s important to note that some people don’t eat in response to stress. In fact, stress can trigger the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which suppresses appetite. According to an APA survey, 30% of adults report skipping a meal due to stress over the last month.

Emotional Eating

exasperated woman with blue background

Stress eating covers one type of emotional eating. But what about the other emotions you’re feeling?

You may not be feeling stress when you’re reaching for food. Maybe you’re feeling down, and your brain is saying, “Hey, I need some happy hormones!” so it leads you to read for food because eating induces the release of dopamine, a feel-good hormone.

Or maybe emotional eating means using food to celebrate. And no matter what, it’s a cause for celebration! Or maybe you’re a newlywed, who finds herself in the 57% of individuals who admit gaining weight in the first year of marriage.

Emotional eating is a concern when it becomes a habit. Here are some questions to ask yourself to know if you need help:

  • Do I use food to deal with my emotions?
  • Can I handle life’s emotions if I didn’t have food to comfort myself?
  • Do I feel reliant on food to survive life’s stressors?
  • Can I feel

Boredom Eating

Boredom eating is just that. It’s not that you’re necessarily dealing with an emotion so much as trying to break up the monotony. Maybe you’re a stay-at-home mom. You can only cook, clean, feed, and do so much laundry. You feel restless, so you reach for food.

Maybe you’re a student. Studying is rough, man! Why not use food to break up the boring read and subconsciously procrastinate this daunting assignment?

Maybe you’re working from home. You’re not hungry, you’re not stressed, you’re just tired of staring at a screen. Food seems like a good reason to get up from your desk.

hamburger and fries


At the end of the day, these three types of eating are technically different though the approaches to them are similar.

If you struggle with any or all of these, sign up for the Defy Stress Eating Challenge!

This 4-day challenge provides a simple activity every day to help you develop a better relationship with food.

After the challenge, check out the Defy Food Guilt Program, which will help you break up with stress eating once and for all.

Oh, and remember, stress eating is normal. We all do it. Both the challenge and the DFG program were specifically created  to help you overcome the mental blocks that come with stress eating, treat yourself with grace and love, and have a contingency plan for when you get off track!

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