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Can eating ever really relieve stress?

(CNN) — Tina Fey shoveled sheet cake into her mouth on a “Saturday Night Live” skit while ranting about the politics surrounding violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. She urged viewers to not attend the dangerous marches and to eat cake instead.

“I know a lot of us are feeling anxious, and we’re asking ourselves, like, what can I do? I’m just one person; what can I do?” Fey says.

Order a cake, she continues, and calmly tells “Weekend Update” host Colin Jost, “Just eat it, Colin.”

OK, so everyone has different ways of managing stress. Wouldn’t it be nice if those coping mechanisms were always healthy? But most of us have, at some point, come home from a rough day at work and scarfed down a personal pizza, or a pint of ice cream, or maybe even a sheet cake.

Katie Rosso, a junior at the University of Missouri, said her most intense stress-eating experiences came when she was the manager of her student newspaper. Every Tuesday, the staff would stay up until 4 a.m. getting the paper ready for production, giving her only a few hours to spare before a 9 a.m. class.

“Just to take the edge off, I would eat so much. And then I’d go home at the end of the night and be like, ‘OK, I had two sodas, a Propel, one package of Starbursts, chips,’ ” Rosso said. “Just because I needed something to do while doing the work, to kind of keep my brain occupied on something more positive.”

While Rosso was eating, she felt good and more relaxed, but afterward, she would lie in bed and “feel disgusting,” she said.

This year, she’s trying to eat healthier. She packs watermelon and popcorn to snack on at work, and she tries to have smaller portions.

“I think I still definitely eat when I’m stressed. But now it’s more controlled, so I control it more than it controls me,” she said.

Gaining control

The type of impulsivity that prompts you to stuff yourself with sugary cereal after a stressful day is a result of emotional hunger, said Rachel Goldman, a psychologist specializing in health and disordered eating. We can experience emotional hunger when we’re stressed, sad or angry, often leading to eating because of those emotions.

Goldman conducted a study in which she showed photos of comfort foods to patients who had bariatric surgery. Those who were less successful with weight loss after surgery had parts of their brain light up when they looked at the food, while those who were more successful did not. This result shows that food could have potentially addictive qualities, she said.

There is a distinction between stress eating and binge eating, she said. Binge eating is when someone quickly eats an abnormally large amount of food in a short amount of time and feels out of control while doing it, such as downing an entire package of Oreos in a half-hour and then feeling guilty. Stress eating may be impulsive, but it’s not always followed by guilt.

“If you can go into eating ice cream and cookies with the conscious decision that ‘I wanted this’ and can accept that you’re going to eat it, no big deal, no harm done, then the thought that happens after the behavior is most likely not going to be feeling guilty,” Goldman said.

The issue is when someone acts impulsively and eats without thinking about whether they actually want it, she said. If stress eating gets out of control, it could lead to binge eating. The key to gaining control is taking a moment to think before you eat something that may be unnecessary.

“They’re going to feel guilty, feel bad about it,” Goldman said. “Then that negative thought will turn into perhaps another negative behavior, perhaps a negative emotion. And our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked. So that can turn into a downward spiral.”

Beware: Even thinking of food as a reward after doing something tough is considered to be emotional eating, she said. And any type of eating because of emotion, not because of physiological hunger, is an unhealthy coping mechanism.

“It’s not exactly solving the problem,” she said. Someone trying to combat stress eating should be prepared with a handful of alternative options. Those who are tempted by junk food at work should pack a protein bar, an apple or another nutritious snack so that they know they have a healthy option if the office orders pizza.

To avoid eating in general, going for a walk, cleaning up or calling a friend are all good choices, Goldman said. If 10 minutes pass and you’re not hungry anymore, it might be emotional hunger. If you’re still hungry, your body probably does need food.

Can stress eating ever be healthy?

So is there a healthy side to stress eating? Not quite, according to Goldman.

“If we think of eating, we really should only be eating to survive,” she said. “When it comes to eating out of a stress or comfort, really there are other ways to cope with those problems. So eating really shouldn’t be those.”

But cleaning your house probably doesn’t sound as appealing as a bowl of hot mac and cheese after a fight with your partner. Lisa Drayer, a registered dietician who writes about nutrition for CNN, says that eating to quell your stress once in a while is fine.

“I think there’s a spectrum. It could start out as, you’re enjoying a scoop of ice cream. Or you just really need a piece of chocolate. And you savor it and love it. That’s fine,” said Drayer. “But when the portions become out of hand, that’s when it becomes a problem, because then it could really lead to weight gain.”

A reward pizza here and or stress candy bar there can add up. Eating 500 extra calories a day could lead to a pound of weight gain per week, she said. However, there’s no need to be hard on yourself after one rough night.

“Don’t feel badly,” Drayer said. “Just get back on track the next day.”