One reason that we eat when stressed is for the physical energy. Foods with simple carbohydrates (like sweets) can provide a quick burst of energy. Physical and/or mental energy is necessary to help us confront the stressor that is causing distress. Yes, simple carbohydrates may provide a quick burst of energy, but what isn’t used is stored.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates can also have a calming effect. When grieving, a bowl of spaghetti helped me recover relaxation and calm. Another reason we eat when stressed is to nurture ourselves. Eating not only provides energy, but is a basic component of physical care.
Physical care is how we initially form attachments in infancy. By providing such care for ourselves, we are increasing our feeling of safety. Choosing certain comfort foods also increases feelings of safety by reminding us of family love and care.
Preparing and eating food can also simply be a distraction from whatever is causing you stress, allowing you a chance to rest (and recover) mentally. One problem with emotional eating is when we don’t allow it to be a distraction. If you continue to think about your stressor, you are not receiving the emotional benefits of eating.
Eating mindlessly often leads to overeating, because we are not paying attention to how much we are eating, but also because we are not receiving those emotional benefits that we craved initially.
If you know why you are craving or instinctually reaching for certain foods, you may be able to make wiser, conscious choices. Emotionality is a variable that can often interfere with our goals and best choices. Although eating can be comforting to some, it may be too big of a temptation for others. Know yourself, honor your needs in whatever way best fits your goals, and pay attention to what you are doing.