Stress eating, emotional eating, boredom eating—are these all the same? We explain the differences and share tips from dietitians on what to do if you find yourself snacking the day (or night!) away.

Lainey Younkin, M.S., R.D.
May 06, 2020
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You had a bad day, so you head to the freezer, grab ice cream, move to the couch and dig right in. You don't feel physically hungry, but eating ice cream is comforting. This is referred to as emotional eating or stress eating. These terms are often used interchangeably, and both refer to turning to food to cope with emotions.

According to Psychology Today, "Emotional eating refers to consumption of food for the purpose of regulating one's emotional states." This is in contrast to wandering into the kitchen because you are bored and grabbing some snacks. That's boredom eating. Studies classify boredom as feeling that your current situation lacks purpose. You feel restless, dissatisfied or unchallenged with what you're doing. "The excitement or stimulation certain foods offer may help to distract people's attention from the bored self," explains a 2015 study.

Then there's popping popcorn in your mouth while watching TV or eating snacks after dinner while scrolling on your phone. That's mindless eating. Mindless eating refers to eating without awareness of what you're consuming or where you're consuming it.

Finally, you might eat because you're craving something specific. You may want some chocolate even though you aren't feeling physically hungry, stressed or bored.

There are many different reasons we eat:

  • Physically hungry—you may feel your stomach growl, have a headache or feel shaky
  • Stress/emotional eating—turning to food to cope with emotions
  • Boredom eating—turning to food when bored
  • Mindless eating—eating without awareness of what, where or how much you're eating
  • Craving—eating because you are craving something specific

None of these is wrong. The most important thing is to stop and ask yourself, "Why am I eating right now?" and then decide the best course of action depending on that answer.

Why do we eat when stressed or bored?

Biology and environment both play a role. "At the surface, stress eating and eating when you're bored appear very similar. They are both reactions to our environment but the main difference is how they affect your body. When you're stressed your body releases large amounts of the hormone cortisol." says Katie Oetken RD, LD, M.P.H., a registered dietitian at Nutrition in Motion.

Cortisol increases appetite and can lead to weight gain. Stress also raises ghrelin, the "hunger hormone," which stimulates appetite too. Food is comforting and pleasurable—especially refined carbohydrates like pasta, bread and desserts (and we tend to crave those carbs when we're stressed). Combine that with the fact that cortisol increases the body's need for glucose (aka sugar), and it's no surprise you've found yourself eating ice cream on the couch.

"Meanwhile, insufficient sleep is also linked to a reduction in satiety hormones and an increase in hunger hormones," says Didi de Zwarte, RD. She says this could mean you're more likely to feel hungry, even though you could be eating the same amount of food. "An important strategy to help manage stress and boredom eating is to make sure you prioritize sleep. Aim for your seven to eight hours a night, and you may find it easier to limit your emotional and boredom snacking," de Zwarte says.

How to stop stress eating or eating when you're bored

First, figure out which one you're experiencing. "Only you can tell the difference between when you're stress eating or eating out of boredom. Take a moment to tune into your body to find out which it is," says Bri Bell, RD, a registered dietitian at Frugal Minimalist Kitchen. "Either way, it's perfectly normal and OK to eat due to stress or boredom or any other emotion on occasion. Beating yourself up about it only adds to the stressful emotions!"

"That being said, don't let eating become your only way of coping with emotions," says Bell. "Just like having a glass of wine after a stressful day is perfectly fine on occasion, but becomes problematic when relied too heavily upon." (P.S.: Here's how to tell if your stress drinking is becoming problematic.)

Bell recommends making the majority of coping strategies health-promoting, such as "exercising, talking to friends and family, getting out in nature, listening to music or doing a hobby." Try out these tips.

1. Breathe

Jamie Lee McIntyre, M.S., RDN, says, "Focus on deep breathing for two to three minutes or step outside for fresh air, allowing the outdoor light to hit your face. Your stress won't disappear, but this can help create a buffer between the urge coming on and the act of eating and buy you time in deciding the best way to react."

2. Make an activity list

"Write a to-do list filled with both productive and fun things, like tidying up an area of your house, calling a friend to check in, putting together a puzzle, completing a five-minute online workout video, etc.," says McIntyre. This strategy works whether you're stressed or bored. "Pick two things to accomplish, then reassess if you need to eat. If you're bored, you'll be in a more productive or motivated mindset to move on to something else that doesn't involve eating!"

3. Exercise

"Any type of physical activity can help keep the stress at bay and help regulate hormones," says Oetken. If you're bored and not physically hungry, go work out first and then eat if you still feel the urge.

4. Set up your environment for success

Put tempting foods behind closed cabinets or up high where you aren't as likely to see them. In contrast, store healthy foods in see-through containers. It may sound silly, but research finds keeping healthier food in plain sight and less-healthy treats out of sight can help you choose healthier options more frequently. You might not be able to control the fact that you're stressed, but you can create an environment where you're less likely to turn to food.

5. Eat balanced meals and get enough sleep

Fill your plate with fiber, protein and healthy fats at each meal. This combo keeps hunger and satiety hormones working properly and keeps you full for several hours. Sleep seven to eight hours each night to avoid cravings the next day.

The Bottom Line

We eat for different reasons—stress, boredom, physical hunger and cravings. None of these reasons are wrong, but over the long term they can lead to weight gain and health issues if food is your only coping mechanism. Before you put food in your mouth, stop and ask why you're eating. If it's because you're stressed or bored, eat a small amount, then move on and find other activities to relieve stress or keep you occupied. Or skip eating the small amount and go find something else to do, coming back to eat when you feel physically hungry.