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There’s something comforting about opening a bag of chips after a long, stressful day. And while chips are delicious, if you find that you turn to them every time you’re stressed, that may indicate that you’re “stress eating”—meaning that those chips are helping you cope with the pressures of the day.
Finding comfort in food is common. A 2015 survey by the American Psychological Association found that about two in five adults reported overeating or engaging in unhealthy eating habits in the month leading up to the survey (American Psychological Association, 2016).
Fortunately, there are a few key steps you can take to stop stress eating. But first, you need to understand the science behind why stress eating occurs. Let’s take a look at what stress eating is, what can cause it, and, finally, what you can do about it.
What is stress eating?
Stress eating, also called emotional eating, is typically referred to as overeating due to feelings of stress or negative emotions—it’s not in response to actually being hungry (Reichenberger, 2020; Yau, 2013).
Maybe you’ve had a rough day at work and sink into the couch with a bag of potato chips. Or you’re going through a breakup and indulged in a pint of ice cream. These events can trigger stress eating and encourage you to seek comfort from food (Reichenberger, 2020).
Physical situations can also cause stress, such as traveling by plane when you hate flying (where you ask the flight attendant for four servings of complimentary snacks). Either way, stress can result in a cascade of internal reactions that can affect your eating patterns.
Why do you eat when you’re stressed?
Stress is your body’s response to tension or pressure from a given situation, whether it’s an emotional stressor or a physical one (Yaribeygi, 2017).
The body has many internal mechanisms to respond to and resolve that stress. Acute stress is often not a big problem, but chronic stress can lead to hormonal changes, sleep disruption, and coping mechanisms that may alter what you eat and weigh.
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One of the main stress hormones in the body is cortisol. The body releases it during stressful situations, so high cortisol levels can indicate more stress. That is good for short-term or acute, stressful situations, like if a bear is chasing you.
Cortisol and other stress hormones like noradrenaline raise your blood sugar—giving you the energy you need to be alert, promoting a healthy fight-or-flight response (Chao, 2017; Hannibal, 2014). Cortisol levels then dip back down to normal once you’re no longer in that stressful situation.
But what happens if stress is ongoing? Recurring or uncontrolled stress can cause cortisol to stay high for long periods by affecting something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the stress response system that works to maintain balance in the body (Yau, 2013).
Chronic stress and high cortisol levels may (Chao, 2017, Hirotsu, 2015):
- Promote the intake of high-fat and high-calorie foods
- Be linked to eating disorders or being overweight
- Promote fat storage and accumulation in the midsection
- Increase food cravings through the activation of appetite hormones like ghrelin that promotes food intake
- Negatively impact sleep
Does stress cause you to sleep poorly, or are you stressed out because you can’t sleep? It turns out that both could be true. Not getting enough sleep can cause stress, and stressful life events can impact how well you sleep (Hirotsu, 2015; Kim, 2007). Either way, research shows a link between higher levels of stress hormones and shorter sleep duration (Hirotsu, 2015)
Sleep plays a role in metabolism and the production of appetite hormones that signal whether you’re full or hungry. Not getting enough sleep can create an imbalance between the amount of food and calories you eat versus the amount you use (Hirotsu, 2015).
A recent study of eating behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic found that sleepiness and shorter sleep duration are both related to food cravings and eating high-calorie foods (Bhutani, 2021).
Health professionals often recommend that adults aim for at least seven hours of quality sleep a night, but many Americans aren’t catching the shuteye they need (Oglivie, 2017). While seemingly unrelated, getting enough sleep can help manage stress and curb cravings and excess food intake (Hirotsu, 2015).
Trouble sleeping: causes and what you can do
How do you stop stress eating?
There are some steps you can take right now to combat overeating due to emotional stress.
Identify your stress eating triggers
The first step to stopping stress eating is identifying what is causing the stress. Keeping a food and mood journal—tracking what you eat, when, and how you feel when you eat it—can help identify patterns and show you what to target first.
Do you stress eat while watching your child play a sport? Do you stop for fast food on the way home from work every Tuesday after a particularly stressful meeting? Keeping a food journal can identify those patterns while also supporting healthy weight goals (Burke, 2011).
Plan out meals and snacks
Meal planning is linked to improved diet quality and body weight (Ducrot, 2017). Having and sticking to a plan makes it easier to say no to or avoid situations where you may find yourself stress-eating. And you’ll have a better idea of what those problem situations and foods are with the help of a mood and food journal.
So, now you can plan to bring your own nutritious snacks to your kid’s soccer game instead of going empty-handed and mindlessly eating chips.
Remove the temptation of your go-to stress-eating foods
Eliminate the temptation! If you have go-to stress-eating foods like chips or ice cream, it may be most beneficial not to keep those foods in the house. But remember, sometimes rigid rules or too much restriction can create even more stress, and eating them in moderation is better than eliminating them (Reichenberger, 2020).
If you don’t want to banish that food completely from the kitchen, try putting it a little more out of sight. One older study from 2006 found that people at an office ate around two more candies per day when the candies were visible and nearby (Wansink, 2006).
Little adjustments such as putting the chips on the top shelf behind canned beans may remove the food’s immediate attraction.
10 healthy snacks (plus tips for snacking)
Call a loved one
Having a strong social support system is associated with better resilience to stress (Ozbay, 2007). Hearing the familiar voice and kind words from a friend or family member may be enough to calm your thoughts and emotions to bounce back and control a stressful situation.
Mindfulness means being present with yourself and your surroundings in a given moment. Mindfulness meditation is a practice where you specifically focus your attention on cultivating that internal state (Behan, 2021). Practicing mindfulness can improve sleep quality and support a healthy stress response (Perini, 2021; Sharma, 2014).
Go for a walk
Instead of reaching for food when you’re stressed, lace up those sneakers and head out the door for a walk. It doesn’t need to be a marathon, but walking may help you manage levels of perceived stress.
One 2013 study found that eight, 40-minute walking sessions over four weeks improved stress symptoms and quality of life compared to those who didn’t walk (Teut, 2013). And a 2018 study of college students found that a brisk, 10-minute walk improved mood when compared to inactive students (Edwards, 2018).
Walking meditation: what is it, benefits, techniques
Getting enough sleep can help you manage stress and better regulate food intake (Hirotsu, 2015). Good sleep hygiene or behaviors to promote healthy sleep include avoiding caffeine, exercising regularly, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, blocking out noise (hello earplugs), and avoiding late-night alcohol (Irish, 2015).
When to seek help for stress eating
Stress eating may be a sign or symptom of underlying conditions. Chronic stress is often linked to anxiety, depression, and anger, and higher levels of stress hormones have been associated with eating disorders (Yau, 2013; Hirotsu, 2015; Reichenberger, 2020).
If you ever feel like your stress eating is out of control, contact a health professional, therapist, or registered dietitian. This professional support can help you identify and best address the root cause of the stress and work with you to determine a personalized action plan.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.