Stress & Eating Habits: How to Manage   

Stress & Eating Habits: How to Manage

Girl works at a computer and stress eats. Unhealthy food: chips, crackers, candy, waffles, soda.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Tara Lally Ph.D.

Stress eating happens to many of us: It's a common practice that occurs when we experience an emotional reaction to stress and use food as a coping mechanism.

"Stress or emotional eating can take several different forms, from avoiding meals altogether to overeating in response to feelings of anxiety or sadness," says Tara Lally, Ph.D., supervising psychologist at Ocean University Medical Center. "It's not unusual for us to turn to food when we're feeling overwhelmed, which is where the term ‘comfort food’ is derived – where food can provide comfort or distraction from life events, but the physical and emotional consequences of chronic stress eating can be serious."

Why Do We Stress Eat?

The reasons some people turn to stress eating vary:

  • Some people may use stress eating as an attempt to self-soothe when feeling overwhelmed.
  • Others might use food as a distraction from their worries and anxiety.
  • Still others might stress eat out of habit as a result of long-term associations between food and emotional needs.
  • Sometimes people turn to food out of boredom or feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • For those who avoid meals as part of stress eating, it can be simply a result of them being overwhelmed and actually forgetting to eat.

Similar to drugs and alcohol, emotional eating is a temporary relief for stress symptoms—not a long-term, healthy solution for addressing or managing stress. "Rather than turn to food in moments of stress, a better, healthier method is to recognize our tendency to reach for food in response to stress, loss, disappointment, sadness and find more sustainable ways to approach it," says Dr. Lally.

Signs You Might Be Stress Eating

Dr. Lally provides signs that you might be involving food in stress management:

  1. Eating a large amount of food in a short period of time
  2. Skipping meals due to stress or anxiety
  3. Eating in the evening or even snacking when sleeping may be difficult
  4. Having intense cravings for certain types of food, particularly during high-stress times
  5. Grazing throughout the day on unhealthy snacks
  6. Eating even when you realize you are not hungry
  7. Feeling guilty after eating
  8. Turning to comfort foods when feeling overwhelmed by stress 
  9. Gaining weight unexpectedly and without increasing activity levels 
  10. Feeling out of control around certain kinds of foods

How to Relieve Stress Without Food

Dr. Lally offers suggestions for healthier alternatives for dealing with difficult emotions such as frustration, anger, loneliness or stress.

Mindful Food Shopping: If it is not in the refrigerator or the kitchen counter you can’t reach for it during moments of stress. A simple “hack” for reducing stress eating is to make good decisions in the supermarket aisle. If it’s a food you are likely to turn to during times of stress, consider not buying it. This may be harder to do when you have young children at home, when there is always pizza or snacks around, but mindful shopping is also a great lesson to teach the kids.

Meditation or Relaxation Techniques: Practicing deep breathing or conscious awareness of your thoughts and body can help reduce tension and regulate your emotions, helping you manage stress in a healthy way without turning to stress eating.

Exercise: Exercise releases endorphins, hormones that reduce stress and boost feelings of happiness. "Regular exercise can help us manage our emotions in healthier ways rather than turn to stress eating," says Dr. Lally.

Social Support: Social support through family members or friends can provide us with an outlet to share our feelings and experiences with people we trust. "Our social network can provide us with comforting companionship, a listening ear and the reassurance that someone is there to help us through more difficult times," says Dr. Lally.

Journaling: Keeping a personal journal can be a helpful way to identify our emotions and process our thoughts. "By writing down our feelings and experiences, we can gain insights into our behaviors when we are under stress and identify triggers," says Dr. Lally.

Talking to a Professional Counselor or Therapist: A behavioral health specialist can work with you to develop healthy stress management strategies, help identify triggers and provide guidance on making positive lifestyle changes. "They can also offer helpful insight into any underlying issues that may lead to stress eating, such as unresolved trauma or depression," says Dr. Lally. "Talking with a behavioral health specialist can be a great way to identify triggers for stress eating, develop healthy coping habits and practice self-care techniques."

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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