HomedietConquering Emotional Eating: How To Overcome Stress Eating

Conquering Emotional Eating: How To Overcome Stress Eating

Conquering Emotional Eating: How To Overcome Stress Eating


How do you stop emotional eating? For most people, emotional eating in response to stress is the default method for coping with a taxing day or event and the main reason why they struggle to lose weight and or maintain a healthy body weight. For some, the urge to overindulge after feeling stressed feels like an almost irresistible force. So much so that they feel powerless to stop the compulsion towards emotional eating. Even though they feel guilty and filled with remorse afterwards. (See my article What To Do When You Cheat On Your Diet). What’s most troubling is that emotional eating almost always involves eating (or to be more accurate overeating) modern highly processed foods that tend to be high in calories, fat and sugar. Stress eating usually happens at the end of the day. The absolute worst time to be flooding your body with more calories than it can use and so the extra energy is stored as fat. (See My Article Eating Late Can Make You Gain Weight) This can lead to a tragic sequence of reciprocal cause and effect, as over time overeating makes you gain weight, and being overweight in today’s society can by itself be incredibly stressful. Which in turn creates an ever-present stress that makes you more likely to succumb to emotional eating as a way of coping with that stress. Given the social, health and physical drawbacks of being overweight, and the common phenomena of uncontrollable urges to eat when under stress, past the point of healthy intake, in addition to feelings similar to “withdrawal” when limiting the foods used to bring comfort, it’s hard to not see emotional eating as a form of addictive behavior. And like any addictive behavior, identifying and understanding the root causes of the problem is one of the first steps towards conquering the addiction. However, as many can most certainly attest, stopping isn’t always easy and stress is only a part of the equation, as we will see that the superabundance and easy access to modern refined high fat, high calorie and sugary foods play a very tangible role in creating the cycle of compulsive eating comparable to addiction. [1] In this article we will take a hard look at the science and mechanisms behind stress induced emotional eating. We will also go over what can be done to overcome these urges. Thanks as always for taking the time to read my work and I do encourage you to share this article with those who you think would benefit from reading it.


Stress is not the root cause of emotional eating
The stress of modern life is not more than the stress of times gone by, in fact it may be less.

Why Stress Isn’t The Root Cause Of Emotional Eating


Many blame stress as a major factor in causing us to overeat and for our ever increasing rates of obesity. The logic is that modern life is stressful, and the unique pressures of living in today’s world make us eat more as a way of coping. Consequently, we are fatter than we were at any other time in human history. Sounds like a clean-cut cause and effect scenario, but it’s a fundamentally flawed one as there are many men and women who EAT LESS when they experience stressful situations. This “reverse emotional eating” isn’t a quirk of nature as it might actually be our default setting as a species to eat less when stressed. Animals under periods of extreme stress are always observed to EAT LESS not more. So much so that veterinarians and animal handlers use decreased food intake is one of the most reliable ways to determine the severity of stress an animal is experiencing. [3,4] Interestingly enough, only one in three men and women will DECREASE their food intake when faced with anxiety causing situations, or after surviving difficult circumstances. [7,8] Personally, I have no real change in either direction with regards to my eating habits whether stressed or not. And over the years I have worked with men and women who run the gamut from stress eaters to those who struggle to eat all their meals when stressed. (As a side note, several very successful natural bodybuilders who I have worked with also tended to eat less when under stress.) So the question we have to ask is why do the majority of humans today react so differently when it comes to our eating habits and stress?


Before we leap to the conclusion that some of us are simply genetically primed to react to stress by overeating, there is a very important fact that bears considering. Even though animals naturally reduce their food intake while under stress, numerous studies show that animals INCREASE their food intake under constant stress IF they are given access to sugary or high fat foods. [5,6] Genetic variations might be responsible for making some of us more likely to overeat highly palatable processed foods as a way of coping with stress, but absent a superabundance of modern hyperpalatable junk foods, emotional eating simply doesn’t seem to occur.

emotional eating may be a product of evolutionary discord
We are evolved to survive in our ancestral environment, so modern living almost always creates situations where our bodies are maladapted.


It makes perfect sense since stress is and always has been a ubiquitous part of human existence. While we tend to romanticize the idea that the stress of modern life in developed countries is somehow worse than what our ancestors had to endure for hundreds of thousands of generations, this simply isn’t true. Stress is by no means a modern phenomenon, and the number of stressors faced by someone living in a developed country is incomparable to the frequently hostile food environment faced by the average human being for the past ten thousand plus years. Stress is also not a bad thing per se, as every positive physical trait that enables us to survive here on earth is an example of human adaptation to an environmental stress. Our large brains, the fact that we walk upright on two legs as well as our social and behavioral capacities are all widely assumed to be adaptations created by the stresses of the ‘savannah’ environment in east and southern Africa from where homo sapiens first emerged. [65, 66, 67, 68] Approximately a million generations later it might appear to have been a long time since we walked on the African plains, but on an evolutionary scale, it most certainly isn’t and we are genetically identical to our forefathers who did. The dilemma is that we are adapted to survive in a world that most of us no longer inhabit. A discord that creates complications just as if you took a troop of lowland gorillas adapted to survive in Central Africa and placed them in New York City.


They might survive to a point, but they have bodies designed for life in forests and swamps, not the concrete jungles of New York. Factor in the hyperpalatable fatty and sugary refined foods that don’t exist in nature and the massive reduction in activity and we can easily imagine what would happen next. The gorillas would inevitably (as has been shown in numerous animal studies) succumb to the same depression, metabolic disease and dysfunctional eating habits that plague so many of us today. And all indications point to the fact that our bodies are as out of place in today’s modern environment as a lowland gorilla would be trying to survive in an urban setting.


One of the most valuable insights for understanding how and why we respond to food the way we do comes from looking at what our ancestral environments were like. A large set of data shows that global temperatures dropped significantly over the past few million years. Which created radical climate changes such as rises and falls in temperatures and changes in precipitation. Climatic shifts that would have led to instability in food availability as plant and animal life would have been drastically altered as a result.[69,70] Creating a state of instability that ended 10,000 years ago, just around the time that agriculture became prevalent. While we might be tempted to think that the advent of agriculture would have meant more stable food supplies, all evidence points to the contrary. Reliance on less diverse dietary sources created huge food shortages when crops failed. [71] As such, there has arguably never been a prolonged period of environmental stability during the evolution of our species and while severe famines were most likely rare among hunter gatherers, there were still periods where our ancestors would have endured eras of uncertainty regarding their next meal due to climate changes.[70]


Energy stress, (worrying about what you are going to eat next) persisted among our predecessors due to human created issues such as over hunting and unsustainable agricultural practices. [72, 73] And there is perhaps nothing more stressful than the fear of starvation, a stressor that exists unfortunately among 848 million men, women and children today. Equally stressful was the fact that at the beginning of the 19th century no country in the world had a life expectancy over 40 years. Almost everyone alive lived in what we today would term extreme poverty, with little medical knowledge, limited treatments against infectious disease and childbirth being the riskiest event of a female’s life. Living was not as comfortable as it is today, and in all countries our ancestors had to prepare for an early death. We are all descendants of these very men and women who endured what today might be considered unthinkable levels of stress, from the day they were born to the day they died, and so it would be a mistake to think that the stress of modern living is somehow special.

Hyperpalatable sugary, salty and fatty foods cause emotional and stress eating
The root of emotional eating is hyperpalatable modern foods that our bodies simply cannot regulate.

The Role Of Modern Processed Foods In Emotional Eating


Historically, emotional eating was not a problem before the Industrial Revolution brought us a variety of high calorie, high fat and low fiber sugary food and drink. Processed foods that by pass our built in stop gaps to overeating and foster addictive like behaviors. Naturally occurring and minimally processed foods like the ones our forefathers have been eating for millions of years don’t cause emotional eating responses. When was the last time you heard someone complain about their uncontrollable habit of having fish and vegetables as a way of coping with a hard day at the office? It simply doesn’t happen. Natural and unprocessed foods don’t have the drug like effects of sugary and fatty foods and the effect of these hyperpalatable foods is enormous. Almost half of Americans polled in large scale studies report using food as a way of coping with the stress in their lives.[44] With women being far more prone to emotional eating than men.[9,10] Food manufacturers are very aware of these effects and in the name of higher profits, are constantly developing formulations designed to make you want to eat more and use their products as comfort food. Emotional eating is profitable, and we should never be naïve to think otherwise. So one of the first steps towards freeing yourself from the clutches of stress eating is to understand that it is a deliberate form of manipulation. The problem isn’t you, it’s foods purposefully created to make you feel inclined to use them as dysfunctional coping mechanisms. (See my article The Economics Of Obesity- Why The Food Industry Needs You To Eat More.)


The Different Forms Of Stress And How They Influence Eating Habits


Under life threatening or ‘challenge’ type stress- the desire to eat is actually suppressed.


We know that stress can trigger signals that make it more likely for us to overeat processed high fat and high sugar food and drink, and so it is important to understand the dynamics of how processed foods pull the strings of so many men and women who suffer from emotional eating. There are different types of stress and they affect our eating patterns differently. There is challenge type stress, which occurs when there is a life threatening and immediate perceived danger. Initiating what is commonly termed the “flight or fight response.” As stated earlier, we are nothing more than products of our evolutionary environment, which was often a place of constant danger and uncertainty. When our ancestors were confronted by the threat of being devoured by a big cat or bludgeoned to death in a territorial dispute, their bodies responded by releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline. Which increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to muscles, increases metabolism and constricts blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract. Which in turn stops digestion and reduces appetite. This is the sympathetic adrenomedullary system (SAM) in action [44] and it’s an important set of protective measures that we share with all mammals when facing imminent danger. [2,44,3] Under extreme circumstances, your body diverts energy from unnecessary ‘housekeeping’ activities like digestion and reproduction, and instead uses all of its resources to focus on doing its best to keep you alive.[45] This applies today if facing an armed assailant in a dark alley just as much as it did when big cats and other marauding humans were our main concerns. It’s relatively easy to visualize, as if you were standing in that dark alley at the wrong end of a gun held by someone who meant you bodily harm, having a slice of chocolate cake would most likely be the very last thing on your mind.

emotional eating does not come from all forms of stress
In a life of death situation, eating a slice of chocolate cake is the last thing on your mind.

There is another form of stress that isn’t life threatening, and for most of us, more commonplace.


But there is another side to the stress response and that is the type of stress that isn’t life threatening. This form of stress is experienced as a prolonged sense of anxiety and it triggers the system known collectively as the hypothalamic–pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It’s the HPA axis that plays a role in making many of us more susceptible to seeking and overeating highly processed sugary and or fatty foods. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is a complex set of interactions among the hypothalamus, the pituitary and adrenal glands that control critical adaptive measures to the stress response.[48] When you face demanding situations that you believe you cannot cope with, or find yourself in situations of public embarrassment, the HPA axis is activated. When this happens, the hypothalamus (in your brain) reacts by secreting a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and vasopressin. CRH and vasopressin stimulate the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH (andrenocorticotropic hormone) which in turn acts on the adrenal glands to produce a class of glucocorticoids. One of them being the very well-known stress hormone cortisol. This is noteworthy, since cortisol release is one of the main outcomes of HPA axis activation and while most of us are familiar with the role of cortisol as a stress hormone, what isn’t as widely known is that it can stimulate hunger and appetite.[2] Consequently, stress that impacts us on an emotional level triggers in a large number of people who have ready access to high fat and high sugar foods, an increased likelihood of stress related eating behaviors.

emotional-eating hpa axis cortisol secretion
By ShelleyAdams – This file was derived from: HPA Axis Diagram (Brian M Sweis 2012)


The Role of Cortisol In Influencing Emotional Eating


Emotional stress triggers cortisol release and those who have high cortisol reactions to stressful situations eat more under stress than those who do not.

Under normal circumstances when the HPA axis stimulates cortisol secretion, there is a negative feedback loop, a process that shuts down further cortisol production. When cortisol is released under stressful conditions, it feeds back to the brain, which in turn triggers a signal to stop further cortisol secretion.[49] This negative feedback loop is designed to keep stress hormone levels within a stable operating range and ensure that our bodies are not exposed to prolonged periods of high cortisol levels, which can be harmful.[49] Elevated cortisol levels can make you eat more, almost uncontrollably so. Prednisone is a commonly prescribed corticosteroid and there is a large body of data that show a direct link between increases in food intake among men and women taking the drug.[50] Other studies have found that individuals with severe eating pathologies, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders tend to have either greater basal cortisol levels and or a larger cortisol reaction to stressful situations.[51,52] In fact, when we speak about someone having the genetics towards obesity, it usually isn’t their physical makeup that’s responsible, but more often their predisposition towards negative eating behaviors due to naturally higher cortisol reactions and or stronger reward system responses.


In a study of medical students preparing for their exams, those who identified themselves as “stress eaters” had far higher urinary cortisol and insulin levels during the high stress examination periods than those who did not identify as stress eaters. Cortisol levels were also much higher during exams among “stress eaters” compared to periods of relatively low stress such as the summer vacation breaks. Not surprisingly, those self-identified “stress eaters” with higher cortisol levels gained more weight than the control subjects during examinations.[7] Another study of men and women with high cortisol responses to emotional stressors found that high cortisol responders were more likely to increase their food intake after being stressed compared to those who had naturally low cortisol reactions to stressful situations.[53] Not surprisingly, the foods of choice when under stress were (surprise!) hyperpalatable fatty and or sugary calorically dense foods.[53] Several other human and animal studies confirm the observation that a high cortisol reaction to stress can accurately predict increased calorie intake while under stressful situations. [54,55,56] Unfortunately, higher cortisol levels also increase visceral abdominal fat accumulation, which unlike subcutaneous fat located beneath the skin and muscles that serves as a reservoir of stored energy and a way of maintaining body temperature, visceral abdominal fat is packed between your organs and is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and several forms of cancer. [57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64]

endogenous opioids and emotional eating
Endogenous opioids are released after the consumption of hyperpalatable sugary, fatty and salty foods.

The Reward System: How Our Brains Are Hijacked By Fatty And Sugary Foods


There is another system working against us when it comes to the cycle of emotional eating of highly palatable fatty and sugary foods and that’s the reward system. The reward system is a collection of brain structures that regulates and controls our behaviors by producing pleasurable effects. Pleasurable effects that compel us to repeat the behavior that produces it. [42,43] Activation of the reward system creates opioid, dopamine and serotonin signaling in the parts of our brain (the limbic system) that create powerful behavioral reinforcements. If you think about it, survival for all higher forms of life, (humans included), comes down to maximizing contact with beneficial stimuli and minimizing contact with harmful stimuli. And the reward system is what makes us do just that, playing a crucial role in our lives by regulating behaviors related to mating, socialization and food intake. [42] Behaviors that, under normal circumstances, keep us healthy and cement our relationships. It’s the reward system that makes newborns experience pleasure at the sugary taste of milk, which encourages them to suckle. And as simple as it might sound, without that response none of us would be alive today. So, you could think of the reward system as a vital evolutionary mechanism that helps increase our adaptive fitness as a species.[74]


However, activation of the reward system can also have dysfunctional consequences, since it evolved in response to keeping us alive in our ancestral environment. Since the world we live in is so radically different from the natural environment to which our bodies are adapted, the reward system can create major behavioral problems, as it is the system responsible for drug and alcohol addiction, and addictive behaviors in general. [44] Activation of the reward system also occurs when hyperpalatable palatable sugary and fatty foods are consumed, as these foods, like drugs and alcohol are novel additions to our diets and nothing about living in a natural environment prepared our brains and bodies to deal with them. [45,46] While illegal and pharmaceutical drugs like opioids activate our reward pathways directly with one chemical being the cause of activation, highly palatable foods do so as a result of a combination of several ingredients. Highly palatable foods stimulate the reward system as a result of increased blood glucose levels and signals from the gut.[47] A complex but powerful set of hormonal and sensory processes that activate the reward system when hyper palatable foods are ingested. Producing feelings of immense pleasure that many use as a coping mechanism in the form of emotional eating in response to stressful situations. Unfortunately, just as in the case of addictive drugs, repeated activation of reward pathways by eating high fat and sugary food and drink leads to changes in the brain that over time increases the compulsive desire to continue the behavior. Which in this case is the compulsion to overeat when under stress. [47]


As we stated earlier, the reward system comprises of three signal systems, endogenous opioids, dopamine and serotonin.[43] Endogenous, (a fancy term for something our body produces), opioids were first discovered in the 5600’s and at that time it was believed that their role was to provide relief from physical pain.[48,49] An understandable assumption since one of the most powerful (and most addictive) painkillers is morphine. Which comes from the opioid family. However, later research showed that one role of opioids is to reinforce the behavior of ‘coming back for more’, which explains the highly addictive nature of all drugs in that class.[50] Now as far as its effects on eating patterns, injecting mice with morphine makes them overeat. Or more precisely, it makes them compulsively overeat foods high in fat and sugar. [51]


Hyperpalatable, energy-dense foods high in sugar and fat activate the opioid system, which makes you feel better. And it’s that feeling of well-being that people often seek in times of high stress. In fact, there is significant research that shows that the opioid system is one of the ways our bodies counter the detrimental effects of emotional stress as opioid release decreases activity of the HPA axis. [58,59] Eating highly palatable foods is thus a powerful tool for shutting down HPA axis activation that occurs from emotional stress and the use of high sugar and high fat foods has long been described as a method by which many individuals ‘self-medicate’ as a form of stress relief.[60,61] However, if stress is chronic and there is a learned response of using food as a coping mechanism the stage is set for the consumption of highly palatable foods as an ‘addictive’ behavior.[47]



How Chronic Stress Can Make High Fat And High Sugar Foods Addictive


Eating high fat and high sugar foods as a way of dealing with stress is problematic as opioids also makes hunger feel more intense and stimulates a desire to eat beyond what the body actually needs. Also, when we eat hyper palatable foods, opioid production increases, and since it works in a negative feedback loop, those levels will eventually taper off. Creating the feeling of anxiety associated with decreases in opioid levels. An anxiety that then compels us to alleviate the discomfort by consuming more high fat and high sugar foods, creating a self-sustaining downward spiral of overeating behaviors that many experts categorize as a bona fide example of addiction.[42,52,53,54] While there is some controversy over the use of the term “addiction” the phenomenon exists regardless of what we call it and such overeating can result in seemingly uncontrollable weight gain. An important point to note is that it is the taste of the food not just the fat, sugar or energy content that stimulates activation of the opioid system. Research shows that artificially sweetened foods activate the opioid system in the same way that sugary foods do [55,56,57] which partially explains why the introduction of artificial sweeteners into our diets did not correspond to a reduction in obesity levels. (See my article 5 Ways Artificially Sweetened Products Can Make You Gain Weight.)


As stated earlier there are two other neurotransmitters involved in the activation of the reward system, dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine pathways influence eating behavior by increasing arousal and food seeking.[62] Injections of dopamine and opiates have been shown to increase intake of sugary and fatty foods, while serotonin has been shown to control satiety and the feeling of well-being.[63] Serotonin also plays a role in stress relief and has such a powerful effect on mood elevation that most anti-depressants work by ensuring higher levels of this neurotransmitter.[64,65] Consumption of carbohydrates has been shown to increase serotonin turnover, which explains why individuals suffering from depression often turn to high carbohydrate foods as a coping mechanism to increase well-being.[66]

Salty junk food causes emotional eating
Foods with salt also seem to ave addictive qualities.

Salt And Emotional Eating


Many hyperpalatable foods that are used to “self medicate” as a response to stressful situations also have high levels of salt as an ingredient. Which appears to augment the craving for these foods by also activating the reward system.[42] Sodium, usually obtained from dietary sources in the form of sodium chloride (NaCl, common table salt) is essential to physiological function as it’s needed to transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscle fibers (including those in the heart and blood vessels), and maintain a proper fluid balance. In humans, the taste of salt is generally regarded as being highly palatable. [38] Given what we know about how the human body evolved, it should be easy to see that the appealing taste that we perceive from salty substances is not a random occurrence, but an evolutionary adaptive fitness mechanism designed to ensure that we ingest adequate levels of a vital substance, as without a certain amount of sodium our bodies cannot function. [38] Evolutionary discord between the modern environment and our ancestral one rears its head as the powerful mechanisms governing sodium retention and sodium balance are unfortunately best adapted for an environment in which few humans inhabit today. Our physiological and behavioral cues for maintaining body sodium and fluid homeostasis evolved in hot climates where sources of dietary sodium were scarce.


Consequently, we are hard wired to seek sodium, but in the natural ancestral environment of the African plains where salt itself would not have existed, sodium requirements would have been met from a natural hunter-gatherer diet with overall intake being approximately 1,000-1,500 mg of salt per day. [39] An intake that was clearly enough for survival as it was our default consumption level for millions of years. But it is a stark contrast to the 3,400 mg of salt consumed by the average American today.[40] In the context of evolutionary history, the addition of large quantities of salt to the human diet occurred approximately 5,000 years ago, and is a relatively recent phenomenon (even more recent than the introduction of agriculture). And the health problems higher sodium intake has created in modern societies such as high blood pressure, heart disease and increased risk of osteoporosis indicates that evolution rendered us best adapted to handle far less sodium than we now consume. [39,40]


Since sources of this critical nutritional requirement were naturally low, it makes sense that ingestion of sodium would activate reward centers to ensure we consumed enough to survive. When you consume salt, the flavor information activates the lateral hypothalamus (LHT) in our brains (as with fat or sugar intake). Which in turn releases dopamine and endogenous opioids to stimulate limbic structures in the brain associated with reward and pleasure. [41,75,76,77] There appears to be a significant overlap in the neural substrates involved in drug addiction and sodium appetite sensitization, and cross-sensitization. Thus, the addition of salt to a high fat or high sugar food increases the likelihood it will be used to self-medicate under stress by those susceptible to increased reward system activation. Creating a preference for sodium that is so compelling that patients with hypertension or congestive heart failure have difficulty adhering to a low sodium diet despite the fact that their lives depend on it. [42,79,80,81].

overcoming emotional eating requires abstinence
overcoming emotional eating requires complete abstinence from hyperpalatable modern foods
The Best Way To Overcome Emotional Eating: Avoid All Modern Hyperpalatable Sugary & Fatty Foods


Like climate change denial, the evidence of modern hyperpalatable foods reacting in the human brain along the same neural pathways as cocaine or methamphetamine is unmistakable. Yet we continue to pretend that this is not the case, and the food industry lobby sees to it that it is never clinically acknowledged. But, profits and politics aside, from both a behavioral and pharmacological perspective there is no difference between hyperpalatable foods and addictive drugs as administration of naloxone or neuroleptics (blockers of opioid and dopamine receptors respectively) completely reduces emotional eating and addictive like eating of these foods. The same way it does in the treatment of substance abuse. [42,82] So among those who are prone to its effects, hyperpalatable foods simply cannot be consumed in moderation.


Without the introduction of modern, multi-ingredient highly palatable foods into the human diet, addictive food behaviors and emotional eating does not occur. We have been eating simple single ingredient foods and foods with minimal to zero processing for hundreds of thousands of years. [70,71,72] Naturally occurring and unprocessed food sources generate information on its calorie content and taste in our brains. Signals that are transmitted to the hypothalamus which then releases, or up regulates, various peptides that make us feel full and satisfied. [43] It is a perfectly balanced system that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of generations to keep us healthy and maintain a stable bodyweight and food consumption without any conscious effort on our part. Whereas with modern hyperpalatable foods, taste sensation is far more intense and overrides the commands to stop eating making you more likely to consume more than you should.[43]

The dilemma faced by those struggling with emotional eating comes from the strongly promoted propaganda that you can eat highly palatable foods “in moderation.”

This is akin to telling a drug addict that a little heroin here and there is okay, as long as you have it in moderation.

Like saying to an opioid addict that they can have some OxyContin as long as it’s in moderation and like saying to a crack addict that they can have moderate amounts of cocaine on occasion.

It’s one of the main ways the food industry manipulates consumers, as they have ample research showing that their foods can be addictive among what they term “strong users” and they lobby to ensure that in all nutrition and food recommendations issued by clinical bodies that their high fat and high sugar products are never omitted and are recommended as being part of a healthy diet when consumed “in moderation.” (See my article Unhealthy Health Foods) In 29 years of helping people eat better, the main reason most men and women could not break their cycle of emotional eating wasn’t any weakness or lack of willpower on their part, but rather that they believed the misinformation from what should have been reputable sources that they could still have highly palatable foods as part of their diets. (The cheat day and cheat meal idea.) Making it all but impossible for them to break the chain of negative eating behaviors, blaming themselves for their perceived failures, and those few genetically blessed with low response reward systems compound the problem by sanctimoniously reinforcing the idea that it’s all a matter of willpower. Since they can control their consumption of these foods, even when under stress, but as we have observed, willpower has nothing to do with it. (See my article Food And Self Control- Dealing With Cravings)


Breaking The Chain Of Emotional Eating Through Behavioral Changes


So how to you avoid food dependent behaviors such as emotional and stress eating if you are prone to it? It starts with the COMPLETE avoidance of highly palatable modern foods. There can be no compromise and if you struggle with emotional eating when stressed you are either genetically predisposed to this behavior or your brain has rewired itself to become more food dependent. This isn’t something that will ever go away. An alcoholic can’t stop drinking today and then have a drink several years down the line without the risk of relapse any more than someone with emotional eating issues can have modern highly palatable processed foods and not risk battling to break free of overeating the wrong foods. In the arena of substance abuse recovery, we advocate the avoidance of people, places and things that trigger the negative behavior and I have always employed the same approach with those struggling with emotional eating. If a group makes you more prone to stress eating, you need to think about changing your peer group. As we said earlier, some people have no problem eating high fat and sugary foods without it ever being a problem, the same way some people can drink alcohol and even regularly take highly addictive drugs and never become addicted. But if you are one of the 70% who tend to stress eat, then you have to focus on taking care of yourself and knowing your limits and never be influenced by what anyone else is doing if it isn’t in YOUR best interest. Being around people who eat the way you would like to eat and who have positive stress coping mechanisms can be extremely supportive as well. Since we are social animals and tend to adopt the very behaviors of the group we find ourselves in, so always look for positive groups.



If a place or thing sets off your emotional eating cues, you need to find a way to avoid it, and if this isn’t possible, (as in the real world we can’t always snap our fingers and change our everyday life situations), you have to find a healthy way to deal with the anxiety it creates in you without resorting to food as a coping mechanism. Which can only happen if hyperpalatable foods are never an option in the first place.


Another crucial factor among those who in my experience were able to stop emotional eating long term, is the belief that you are empowered with free will.

Those who convince themselves that they are powerless in the face of the stress of modern life and have no other recourse but to use food as a coping strategy are almost never successful at breaking this unhealthy habit.

Looking again to the field of addiction treatment, while the commonly held view among health professionals is the idea that addiction is a disease caused by problems when the brain encounters certain foreign substances, there is a large and growing amount of literature that supports an alternative view in which addiction is seen as a disorder of choice.[67,68,69] Similarly, the idea that emotional eating is nothing more than a disorder of the brain or some genetically predetermined behavior leads many to harbor the destructive belief that they can never control their eating habits, and that they do not possess the free will needed to override their emotional eating.[69] Yes, having certain genetic predispositions might make you more susceptible, but DNA isn’t destiny and thinking otherwise thwarts the very capabilities that you need to overcome emotional eating in the first place.


You have to make the decision to quit, and if you don’t you will almost always relapse even if you go for periods without stress eating. But in order to choose to quit you must believe that it’s possible for you to make that choice and then be willing to work at maintaining abstinence from highly palatable foods. It isn’t easy, and even though the desire to stress eat will abate over time, it may never completely cease and so you have to be vigilant about how you handle your stress. But it is possible and over the years I have seen hundreds of men and women do it, the same way I have seen people with lifetime substance abuse issues become sober and maintain their sobriety. It can be done. It’s hard, yes, but it is possible.

exercise of sufficient intensity can help alleviate stress eating
Exercise of sufficient intensity can help alleviate stress and the emotional eating it triggers.


The Role Of Physical Activity In Helping Stop Emotional Eating


Therapy can help, and is strongly encouraged, but so can high intensity exercise. Which reduces stress and anxiety, elevates mood, and relieves pain, but the underlying neurobiological mechanisms responsible for these beneficial psychophysical effects remain largely unknown. There is some evidence that exercise may activate the very same opioid system as the consumption of highly palatable foods, (which explains why exercise addiction exists) but it may also be due to increases in body temperature and or catecholamine release. Catecholamines are hormones made by your adrenal glands which are linked to changes in mood, alertness, movement, cardiovascular and hormonal responses, and are thought to be the cause of elevated mood during physical activity. [83,84,85] Regardless of the biology behind mood elevation, as long as it is performed in moderation, exercise remains one of the most effective tools against emotional eating.


In my practice, over the years those who I worked just on their eating habits but who did not, or were not able to exercise regularly never had anywhere near the same success in controlling their eating long term compared to those who did exercise regularly. Intensity may also play a role in how effective exercise is in helping reduce the stress response towards emotional eating as the rate of success long term was also higher among those following my prescription of high intensity training when compared to those who I worked with, and who trained, but at lower intensities. One might think that the law of small numbers might make this observation statistically insignificant, but given that the number of men and women from all parts of the world who I and my staff have been privileged to work with number in the thousands over three decades, it does warrant some consideration.

Ultimately, (intense) exercise and stress management seem to go hand in hand. Which makes sense as there is an evolutionary component to exercise that is often overlooked. As stressful as life must have been for the better part of human existence, food procurement would almost always entail physical activity. Thus, it is no coincidence that physical exercise seems to help us better deal with stress, as it may have been (and remains) the built-in coping mechanism our ancestors as they dealt with the uncertainties of pre-modern life. A coping mechanism that we would be remiss to ignore as an invaluable tool in controlling emotional eating.

5th Avenue Gym circa 2009- 5 years out from my last show.

As you can see, trophies and competitions were NEVER the driving force behind why I train the way I train and why I eat the way I eat.

It's always been my passion to see how far I could go as a natural athlete and perhaps even more so, to show what can be accomplished without using drugs.

And 5th Avenue Gym was the perfect place to do it.

I really miss that gym.

It was a place where legends came to train and while it wasn't pretty, it had everything we needed to do the work we needed to do.

And boy did we work!!!

5th Avenue for life as they say!!!

Hope you are still training hard and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

And thanks @pit_bulls_67 for snapping the shot!!!!

#naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuilding #throwback #fifthavenuegym #5thavenuegym #drugfreebodybuilding #naturalbodybuildinglifestyle #gym #gymlife #gymmotivation #naturalbodybuildingmotivation #bodybuilding #bodybuildinggym

212 31

Why Are Pull Ups So Hard For Some But Not For Others?

Pull ups are an exercise people love to hate!

They love to hate it because in my experience, most untrained men or women can't do one pull up and those who train can often struggle to do 6 or 10.


Because pull ups are hard!

And yet people like myself can easily do as many as 20-25!

So what's the reason for this discrepancy?

Is there some secret that allows me and others to do pullups so easily?

There isn't, and in this video I go over exactly why I can do as many as I can and why it can be so much harder for others.

I also go over my #1 pull up variant that ANYONE can do, even if you can't do one pull up.

And yet it can build strength and muscle size in some cases even more so than regular pull ups!

So click the link in my bio to see the full video on YouTube or go to my channel by looking up naturallyintense!

Thanks in advance for watching and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#pullups #highintensitytraining #naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuilding #fitover40 #naturalbodybuildingvideos #backworkout #pullupworkout #naturalbodybuildingtips #backtraining #highintensitytrainingtips #hometraining #trainingtips #bodybuildingtips

79 13

Maximize Biceps Growth With High Intensity Arm Blaster Hammer Curls!

50lb Dumbbells For 20 reps!

The Arm Blaster is a fantastic piece of equipment for a home gym or any gym!

It doesn't take up much space and allows you to add variety to your biceps training.

It locks your elbows in place, thus increasing training intensity, and by doing a hammer curl, you can use more weight (thus increasing intensity even more) and target your brachialis muscles which help add density to your biceps!

This was my last set and I couldn't go any heavier as I am still nursing a wrist injury, but the 50lbers were more than enough to do the job!

Try them out next time you train arms and let me know how it goes!!!

Still training, hope you are too and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#hometraining #homeworkout #homeworkout #nuobell #highintensitytraining #naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuilding #fitover40 #naturalbodybuildingvideos #armworkout #bicepsworkout #naturalbodybuildingtips #biceps #armtraining #bicepsworkout #highintensitytrainingtips #drugfreebodybuilding#powertec #armblaster #hammercurls

103 12

Injury-Proof Your Training: The Power of Workout Variation!

One of the main reasons why I can still train heavy and intensely at 49 after 35 years of nonstop training without any training related overuse injuries is the fact that I vary EVERY workout!

Overuse injuries come from doing the same movements over and over and by always changing your routine, you radically lessen the likelihood of chronic injury.

Squats, deadlifts, barbell curls and bench presses are great exercises, but if you do them all the time, you do increase the odds of getting injured.

And as a natural athlete, it bears mentioning that it takes years to realize your full potential, and so it's crucial to have a training program that is sustainable, and one that will allow you to train injury free for as long as I have or longer!

Thanks so much for tuning in and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#naturalbodybuilding #naturalbodybuildingtips #naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuildingvideos #injuryprevention #fitover40 #workout #gymlife #workouttips #trainingmotivation #naturalbodybuildingmotivation #drugfreebodybuilding #highintensitytraining #injuryfreetraining #longevity

85 19

High Intensity Training Leg Extensions To Failure!
And as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#naturalbodybuilding #naturalbodybuilder #highintensitytraining #highintensitytrainingtips #hometraining #homeworkout #fitover40 #naturalbodybuildingvideos #naturalbodybuildingtraining #naturalbodybuildingtips #naturalbodybuildingmotivation #legextensions #legday #legworkout #powertec #legdayworkout

117 16

This Is What 35 Years of Natural Bodybuilding Looks Like!

So as you know, As you may know I recently turned 49 and every year I do a photoshoot to show my progression.

In the hopes of showing that you can not only maintain a level of excellence as the years go by, but that you can do it without steroids, TRT, drugs or even pre-workouts and protein shakes!

(I’ve never had a pre-workout or energy drink and haven’t had a protein shake in decades!)

You don't need it as all it does make you forget tht excellence doesn’t require anything outside of yourself.

You already have all the tools you need!

Not a huge fan of taking photos of myself, (I much prefer being behind the camera) but I humbly try to be one example of just how much you can achieve with proper training and an uncompromisingly proper diet!

So here I am again at 49 and I am looking forward to seeing what you accomplish over the years as well!!! Thanks so much for tuning in and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#naturalbodybuilding #naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuildingvideo #naturalbodybuildingmotivation #naturalbodybuildingtips #highintensitytraining #drugfreebodybuilding #nodrugs #fitover40 #fitoverforty

366 36

High Intensity Arm Training- 50lb Concentration Curls!

There are two basic types of exercises, compound movements like barbell curls and isolation movements like concentration curls.

If you want above average arm development, you have to go hard on all exercises.

Isolation movements included, especially if you are drug free as we don't have the privilege of maximum growth from anything less than putting in some seriously hard work!

You have to go to that dark place where you can barely get the weight to move and do whatever it takes to get it up!

And then somehow find it in you to do it again!!!

You can't intellectualize it, you just have to do it and believe!!!

This was my third and last set and so I went all out!

My wrist is still a bit off so not going ultra heavy (by my standards) but
this was a hard set!

I haven't done concentration curls in a while, so I am really sore right now as I type this out two days after the workout!

Bear in mind that I always try to change it up and no one exercise is done every time I train.

Never training to maintain, always working hard to gain!!!

Still training and I hope you are too!!!

Thanks for tuning in and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#hometraining #homeworkout #homeworkout #roguerack #nuobell #highintensitytraining #naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuilding #fitover40 #naturalbodybuildingvideos #armworkout #bicepsworkout #naturalbodybuildingtips #biceps #armtraining #bicepsworkout #highintensitytrainingtips #drugfreebodybuilding

157 16

Unlock Your Natural Potential By Varying Your Workouts!
For the past 32 years I have always done a different workout every time I trained.

I have never followed a set program of exercises and the only unifying aspect of my workouts is the blistering intensity!

I train three times a week with a protocol I call Naturally Intense High Intensity Training, and what distinguishes it from other forms of high intensity training is the constant variety.

Muscles grow in response to overload and UNACCUSTOMED stimulation.

Remember when you first started training how effective everything seemed to be, but over time that progress slowly ground to a halt.

You change your routine and see some progress, but the gains in size and strength inevitably fall off over time if you don't make a change.

Now what if you never left that "beginner gains" stage and were always training with different exercises and radically different ways of doing the exercises every single time?

You would be where I am, not having experienced a plateau over the past 32 years and be able to really start unlocking your natural potential!

How does it all work, and how would you measure progression? Watch the full video on YouTube by clicking on my bio link, or going to my YouTube channel (Naturally Intense) and see for yourself!

I really think it can help make a difference in your overall progress, and best of all, it helps you avoid injuries so you can keep training hard for years on end! Thanks in advance for watching and as always, Excelsior!!! #naturallyintense

#naturalbodybuilding #naturalbodybuildingtips #naturalbodybuilder #naturalbodybuildingvideos #workout #workouttips #fitover40 #gymlife #workoutmotivation #trainingmotivation #naturalbodybuildingmotivation #drugfreebodybuilding #highintensitytraining #highintensitytrainingtips #HIT

142 21

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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, Kevin Richardson’s Naturally Intense High Intensity Training have helped hundreds lose weight and transform their bodies with his 10 Minute Workouts. One of the top natural bodybuilders of his time, Kevin is also the international fitness consultant for UNICEF and one of the top personal trainers in New York City.


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Kevin Richardson
Kevin Richardsonhttps://www.naturallyintense.net
Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, celebrity Personal Trainer NYC and with over 2.6 million readers of his blog, Kevin Richardson is the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training, one of the top lifetime drug free bodybuilders of his time, the first International Fitness & Nutrition Consultant for UNICEF, 2020 and 8 Time Winner of the Best of Manhattan Awards for Personal Training and a world recognized authority on high intensity training. Kevin has helped thousands, from celebrities to CEO's over the past 30 years achieve their fitness goals with his 10 minute high-intensity workouts done just three times a week in conjunction with his holistic nutrition approach. You can learn more about about his diet and training services at www.naturallyintense.net


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