Stop Stress Eating: 13 Tips to Gain Control

Eating to cope with stress is common, but reaching your health goals is challenging if you feel out of control around food. Learn how to stop stress eating with these 13 tips.

Womans-hands-using-phone-while-eating-a-lot
by
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN
— Signos
Health & Nutrition Writer
Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Updated by

Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 19, 2024
March 6, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Stress is a physical or emotional response to a demanding or challenging situation. Your body is designed to adapt to short-term stress; it can even help you make a decision or motivate you to be more productive. But chronic, unrelenting stress can seriously affect your health and daily behaviors, including when and what food you eat.

Also called emotional eating, stress eating usually has little to do with actual hunger. Instead, it centers around emotions. It’s a way to deal with uncomfortable feelings, but it can undermine your efforts to feel good in your body (or stall weight loss if this is your goal).

Stress eating usually centers around highly palatable or comfort foods that are sweet, salty, and high-fat. These foods may provide temporary pleasure but don’t make us feel better long-term. It’s common to feel like stress eating is running your life, but change is possible. Here’s how to have self-control with food.

How Does Stress Affect Your Appetite?

Stress can impact your appetite in two ways. For some people, high stress means lower appetite. Think about that feeling of butterflies you might get before public speaking or a job interview. Losing your appetite or feeling sick when your body is in “fight or flight” mode is normal. But anxiety and appetite suppression is usually associated with acute or short-term stress.

On the other hand, increased appetite is more common under chronic stress. But does stress actually make you hungry? Stress eating isn’t necessarily due to true hunger (meaning you haven’t had enough calories to sustain your energy levels), but it may feel like this is the case.

{{mid-cta}}

How Can Stress Make Us Eat More?

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone released in response to stress, can increase appetite. 1 This is your body’s way of ensuring you have enough energy to deal with the “danger” it perceives. Unfortunately, cortisol raises blood sugar and tells the body to hang onto weight.

Conversely, emotional eating isn’t necessarily about appetite but about filling an emotional void. Consider how often we use food to respond to something difficult in life, even starting in childhood. 

Many kids are given treats like ice cream after a hard day at school or a lollipop after a doctor’s appointment. It’s not that treating ourselves to a food we enjoy is inherently a “bad” thing. However, the timing of these treats can cause our brains to normalize using food to cope with hard life situations.

Pleasure signals from food can also make you experience positive emotions, at least temporarily. According to some studies, sugar, salt, and fat are the pleasure-reward trifecta for your brain, and they can light up the same reward centers as drugs. When you regularly consume foods with sugar, the body also releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with pleasure.

Close-up-of-hand-grabbing-cinnamon-roll

How To Recognize Stress Eating

Physical hunger includes physiological symptoms like dizziness, hunger pains, feeling faint, or moody. In most cases, you’ll eat anything if you’re starving, even if it’s not your favorite.

Emotional hunger is different as it’s not usually accompanied by physiological hunger signs. Instead, stress eating is usually accompanied by anxiety, sadness, anger, depression, or boredom. Food is used to fill a void rather than satisfy an actual need for energy intake.

Stress eating symptoms can include:

  • Cravings for a particular type of food (usually a treat).
  • Food is a comfort you are drawn to when things feel hard.
  • You eat the food rapidly, maybe hardly tasting it.
  • You know you aren’t hungry but still want something.
  • You think about food as something you “deserve” after a hard day.

Stress eating can also become a compensatory behavior that does not address the root causes of your emotions or what is happening in your brain. 

If you are consistently turning to food in these situations, you will not be able to explore other coping mechanisms that could help your manage and eliminate stress. Don’t know where to start? Let’s dive into actionable tips that you can use now to transition away from stress eating.

How to Stop Stress Eating: 13 Proven Tips 

  1. Learn your triggers. Your stressors may differ from your friend’s—whether it’s work, family, or a particular event. Learning how to stop anxiety eating starts with understanding why you’re reaching for food.
  1. Eat regularly throughout the day. Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar and increased cravings. If you sit down to a meal when you are already super hungry, you’re more likely to overeat even beyond that meal. Regularly spaced meals with lean proteins, high-fiber carbs, and healthy fat can help balance blood sugar and minimize binge eating behaviors.
  1. Try drinking some tea or water. It seems silly, but having a hot cup of tea or water may help ease the urge to reach for food. Taking a few moments forces you to pause and think about your actions. Plus, certain herbal teas like chamomile are calming and proven to decrease stress.
  1. Go for a walk. Taking a few minutes to move your body can be incredibly therapeutic for stress. Even if you don’t feel like it, research shows gentle movement can boost endorphins, which will help improve your mood and lower anxiety.
  1. Try a journal. It’s not for everyone, but writing down how you feel and what’s causing stress can be helpful. You don’t need to write for long; just a few sentences about your feelings can be enough to help you reset. 
Woman-writing-on-journal-at-home
  1. Turn on the music and dance. Listening to music is a powerful way to improve mood (and it’s backed by research). Dancing to your favorite tunes instead of turning to the kitchen is a great way to burn off energy, have fun, and reduce stress.
  1. Have go-to healthy snacks on hand. If a salty bag of chips is your usual craving, try keeping salted snacks like a handful of nuts and air-popped popcorn nearby. Try dates with peanut butter or dark chocolate if you crave sugar.
  1. Follow a meal plan that includes foods you enjoy. A plan that includes foods you enjoy eating is much easier to stick with and makes it less likely you’ll feel deprived. Knowing what you’re going to eat ahead of time can also help reduce the stress of having to figure it out when hunger hits, and you’ll already have the food ready to go in the fridge.
  1. Don’t restrict calories. Restrictive diets can lead to rebound overeating. When you’re not getting enough energy from food, your body compensates with hunger hormones that increase appetite. Instead of restricting, aim to eat a balanced diet with adequate nutrition and enjoy treats in moderation.
  1. Find social support. Friends, family, or an online community can provide invaluable support to help you work through stress. Talking through feelings and sharing how to cope with the sources of your stress can make you feel less alone.
  1. Keep foods you know are a problem out of the house. It may not have to be forever, but while the stress remains a problem, keep those foods you know you can’t resist out of the house. It doesn’t mean you’ll never eat them again, but keeping them away from the kitchen counter gives an extra barrier. 
  1. Work with a mental health expert. If you find that despite your best efforts, stress eating continues to be an issue, it may be time to seek professional help. A mental health expert can provide guidance on how to cope with stress, better manage cravings, and help you understand why you reach for food in the first place.
  1. Work on stress resilience. While you can’t eliminate all stress from your life, working on how to better manage stress can be incredibly beneficial in preventing stress eating. This includes finding strategies such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Learn More About Mindful Eating with Signos’ Expert Advice

Kindness and self-compassion are two essential tools for overcoming emotional eating. Examining triggers can be difficult and even painful if you struggle with stress eating. These aren’t habits that change overnight, but you can regain control of food with consistent effort.

Taking the necessary steps to understand how stress impacts your eating habits may feel daunting, but it pays off long-term. One way to stay in touch with how food affects your body is by using the Signos app with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). 

A CGM is a powerful tool that constantly measures your blood sugar to see how food, stress, exercise, and daily life impact your metabolic health. Using a CGM with personalized feedback from the Signos app can motivate you to make healthy choices. You can find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz here.

Interested in learning more about nutrition and healthy habits? Visit the Signos blog.

Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • item 3
Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Topics discussed in this article:

References

  1. Chao, A. M., Jastreboff, A. M., White, M. A., Grilo, C. M., & Sinha, R. (2017). Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 25(4), 713–720. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21790
  2. Ortiz, R., Kluwe, B., Odei, J. B., Echouffo Tcheugui, J. B., Sims, M., Kalyani, R. R., Bertoni, A. G., Golden, S. H., & Joseph, J. J. (2019). The association of morning serum cortisol with glucose metabolism and diabetes: The Jackson Heart Study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 103, 25–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.12.237
  3. Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 32(1), 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
  4. Rada, P., Avena, N. M., & Hoebel, B. G. (2005). Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience, 134(3), 737–744. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043
  5. Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva endocrinologica, 38(3), 255–267.
  6. Sah, A., Naseef, P. P., Kuruniyan, M. S., Jain, G. K., Zakir, F., & Aggarwal, G. (2022). A Comprehensive Study of Therapeutic Applications of Chamomile. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 15(10), 1284. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph15101284
  7. Anderson, E., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 27. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
  8. Aalbers, S., Fusar-Poli, L., Freeman, R. E., Spreen, M., Ket, J. C., Vink, A. C., Maratos, A., Crawford, M., Chen, X. J., & Gold, C. (2017). Music therapy for depression. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 11(11), CD004517. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004517.pub3

About the author

Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.

View Author Bio

Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

Interested in learning more about metabolic health and weight management?

Try Signos.