Wondering how to stop stress eating and form a healthier relationship with food? Gaby Vaca-Flores, RDN, CLE, breaks down the ‘why’ behind your stress eating and what you can do instead.
Some people journal when they’re stressed, others call a friend, take a bath, or head out for a run, but many look for comfort in food. In fact, nearly 40 percent of adults overeat or eat unhealthy foods because of stress, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association. So if you often find yourself reaching for food when you’re stressed, you are not alone.
Emotional eating is an umbrella term that describes eating to avoid or improve a negative emotion. Considering the aforementioned statistic, one of its most common facets is stress eating.
But exactly what is stress eating? Stress eating involves using food as a coping mechanism when you’re feeling overwhelmed, tense, or worried. During stress eating, food is consumed for comfort, not to satisfy hunger.
A person who stress eats may:
- Eat more than usual in response to a stressful day or event
- Eat despite feeling full or not hungry
- Eat at unusual times of day
- Crave a favorite food or type of food more than usual
- Feel an urgent need to eat or satisfy a food craving
Since many people experience ongoing stress, stress eating is not typically a one-time occurrence. Frequent stress eating can negatively impact both mental and physical health and can keep people from seeking healthier stress reduction techniques.
As it turns out, there is more to stress eating than meets the eye. Keep reading to learn why we often lean on food as a coping mechanism and how to stop stress eating.
Why do we stress eat?
Psychological factors naturally play an important role in why we stress eat. Many people eat when they’re stressed to help provide temporary relief from unpleasant emotions. After all, when we eat something we love, it can spark feel-good hormones called endorphins.
For some, food can help fill an emotional void because it provides a guarantee. When we eat comfort foods, we know what flavors, textures, and feelings to expect while we eat it. This may be a pleasant contrast to the uncontrollable factors that cause daily stress.
However, when stress-eating becomes a regular occurrence, there may also be other hormones influencing our eating behavior.
During stress, the brain responds with a series of mechanisms designed to help the body return to its pre-stress state. The HPA axis is the primary operator of the brain’s response to stress. Specifically, the HPA axis connects the brain to the liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands which are collectively known as the endocrine system. When a stressful event occurs, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol.
Normally, cortisol levels fluctuate with a steady decline throughout the day. Cortisol helps boost the body’s daily supply of energy by mustering glucose and fatty acids from the liver. However, cortisol levels spike when a stressful or threatening event occurs to supply extra energy for dealing with the stressor.
The issue here is that frequent spikes in cortisol levels due to stress can wreak havoc on your appetite. In the long term, elevated cortisol levels can increase appetite and even motivation. In other words, it can increase your motivation to eat when feeling stressed out.
While the reasons behind stress eating can vary with each individual, understanding your ‘why’ behind stress eating is one of the first steps in changing this behavior.
How to stop stress eating
Enjoying so-called comfort foods isn’t a bad thing. Occasionally eating foods that we really want, but that have traditionally been deemed as ‘bad’ can be a positive sign that we’re in tune with our body’s cues. This is an important tenant of practicing intuitive eating. However, when we use foods as a fix for our emotions, this is where it can get into stress-eating territory. If you deal with recurring stress eating, it can become difficult to practice a balanced eating routine. Below are my top tips to stop stress eating.
Identify stress triggers
Taking a closer look at the events that lead to stress or emotional eating is an essential first step.
At times that you do find yourself stress eating, use a journal, app, or even the Notes on your phone to track stressors. What was happening in that moment or that day? How were you feeling? Were you hungry when you started eating? This can be a helpful way to identify and acknowledge the impact that stress has on your overall well-being. This awareness can help prevent non-hunger-related trips to the fridge or vending machine.
Conversely, you can work retroactively by pausing before taking a bite of your go-to comfort food and asking yourself, “am I actually hungry or am I responding to stress?”
Replace eating with other stress-relieving activities
Then, it helps to come to terms with the fact that we usually can’t control daily stressors. However, we can control how we respond to them without stress eating. Here are some tried and true activities to swap out stress eating with:
- Go for a short walk
- Read a chapter of a book
- Write in your journal
- Try exercise to reduce stress
- Listen to your favorite music (bonus points for dancing)
- Practice breathing exercises
- Call a friend
Once you replace stress eating with more effective coping mechanisms, you’ll find that your hunger cues will become more apparent. As a result, it’ll be much easier to eat intuitively. Intuitive eating simply means that you eat for nourishment and pleasure alike when you feel hungry, but not out of boredom or stress.
Set yourself up for (dietary) success
One of the best ways to respond is by setting yourself up for success when it comes to food.
Where do you usually get your comfort food from? Maybe you keep your pantry or desk well-stocked with your favorite convenience foods or have your DoorDash favorite saved. In many cases, comfort foods can lean towards being calorie-dense.
As a dietitian, I recommend swapping these stress-eating standbys with healthier foods that are higher in nutritional value. These foods can help you be less inclined to associate them with stress relief. Instead, you can work on reframing those foods as things you eat once in a while, outside of an emotional reaction.
In addition, imbalances in blood sugar levels can take a toll on our mood and can amplify cravings. For this reason, I highly suggest keeping high protein foods and snacks on hand to help maintain balanced blood sugar levels. Some snack ideas to try are:
- Hummus and pita
- String cheese
- PB & J sandwich
- Cup of yogurt
Another way to use nutrition to your advantage is to incorporate foods that reduce stress into your regular diet.
When stress eating could be something more
While stress eating isn’t good for us, it’s a normal response to stress that should be worked on.
However, some eating behaviors should be taken more seriously. Specifically, if you feel like you have lost all control over the amount of food you eat at once, it may be helpful to seek professional help from your doctor and personal dietitian for support.
Additionally, if you are noticing that your daily stress is taking a significant toll on your life and wellbeing, it can be very beneficial to seek support from a mental health professional.
Stress eating is a common coping mechanism for people when they feel stressed out. Many people reach for comforting foods that are calorie-dense. While these foods don’t need to be eliminated from your diet, they should be enjoyed for pleasure, not to help cope with stress. Familiarizing yourself with your stress triggers, finding activities to do in response to stress, and adding healthier options to your arsenal can help you stop stress eating. If stress eating begins to feel out of control, we recommend seeking help from your doctor, dietitian, or mental health professional.