Stress, Emotional Eating, & Mindfulness

Man holding his hands out.

Even though the purpose of food is to provide energy and nourishment to our body's, many of us have strong emotional attachments to specific foods or eating rituals, and therefore have experienced uncontrolled emotional eating at one point or another. During the March MUSC Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery Program support group meeting, Dr. Rebeca Castellanos, a Behavioral Medicine Postdoctoral Fellow, led a discussion on stress, emotional eating, and mindfulness. This particular group appealed to those who were wanting help with stress management and overcoming stress eating and also those who were missing the support of social interaction.


Stress can be defined as our mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to any perceived demands or threats. Stress in our lives comes from many different causes such as situations that have strong demands (financial hardship), situations that are imminent, life transitions, deviation from the "norm", grief, ambiguity, etc. There are two types of stress that were highlighted: distress and eustress. Distress is the type of negative stressor. It occurs when one feels overwhelmed and out of control, which can lead to a debilitating feeling and negative coping mechanisms, such as emotional eating. Eustress is a positive stress that occurs when we are challenged in life by things such as graduating college, getting married, or starting a new job. One's performance and productivity improves when eustress is present, however, worsens with distress. Dr. Castellanos suggested making life goals more specific because this also makes stress more specific, manageable, and less likely to become overwhelming.

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to one's emotions. This often occurs when one uses food to fill a void or sense of emptiness. Dr. Castellanos clarified that there is nothing wrong with food being comforting sometimes, however, it becomes damaging when overeating in response to our emotions leads to: retreating from social support during times of emotional need; not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress and sadness; not understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger; and using negative self-talk related to bingeing episodes. Sometimes it can be challenging to recognize the difference between true hunger and false alarms (emotional hunger). Recognizing true hunger cues can help overcome emotional eating. In order to help members better distinguish between these two different cues, "true" hunger cues were defined as feeling low energy/fatigue, hunger pangs, growling, shakiness, headache, irritability, nausea, and difficulty concentrating. It was discussed how post-bariatric surgery, one does not have hunger cues, however, in the long-term these hunger cues are regained. Everyone can feel different cues when their body is signaling that it is time to eat and refuel. So once appropriate, it is important to become familiar with your own hunger cues.


Mindfulness is the purposeful awareness to the present moment, while maintaining an attitude that is non-judgmental, curious, and kind. These components can also be applied to eating, in order to limit uncontrolled emotional eating. Dr. Castellanos explained the mechanism of why mindfulness is so effective. She stated that without mindfulness, we are presented with a stimulus (food/drink) and immediately respond (typically by consuming the food despite internal feelings). However, when we eat mindfully, we give ourselves a choice as to whether we are hungry or not. During the group, March members participated in a mindfulness exercise which challenged them to connect to their 5 senses and become more aware of the environment surrounding them.

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom" -Victor Frankl

About Dr. Castellanos: Dr. Rebeca Castellanos received her PhD in clinical-community psychology from the University of South Carolina. She is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Behavioral Medicine/Health Psychology at MUSC. Her areas of professional interest include cultural adaptations of interventions, mindfulness-based interventions, Latinx mental health, and health disparities. She is passionate about providing evidence-based services and interventions to behavioral medicine populations such as patients undergoing bariatric surgery, patients pre/post solid organ transplant, patients living with chronic pain, and other populations living with chronic health conditions. 

About the Authors: Allison Sabatino, Mallory Sanford and Anna Brown are dietetic interns with MUSC's dietetic internship. All are pursuing careers as registered dietitians.