Stress Eating: What To Know and How To Stop It

Stress may wreak havoc on your metabolism. Here's how it can affect your appetite and how you can stop stress eating.

Stress eating - Person sitting at table looking at food

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By now, you've probably heard that stress is bad. Excess stress can cause muscle tenseness, tension-type and migraine headaches, shortness of breath and rapid breathing, high blood pressure, depression, chronic fatigue, digestive problems, and more. It affects all systems of your body.

Research shows chronic, or long-term, stress may also cause metabolic changes, leading to stress-induced weight gain, particularly around your midsection. Cravings for junk food don't help, and you may get strong ones when you're stressed.

While you can't always avoid or prevent stress in your life, these tips can help you reduce your cravings and curb stress eating—but first, here's how stress and eating are related.

The Link Between Stress and Eating

Maybe you have found yourself reaching for the tub of ice cream to deal with intense emotions. It happens to a lot of us. It's a typical human response. You may find yourself eating when you're feeling sad, bored, or stressed—even if you're not hungry.

Stress causes your body releases a hormone called cortisol, commonly referred to as the stress hormone. It's a normal part of the body's response to external and internal stressors. It is released by the adrenal glands on your kidneys to help your body stay alert.

Research has shown cortisol release during stress leads to more eating than when you're happy. Part of the overeating may be because stress can interfere with thought processes, like self-regulation. Another part is stress can influence your behavior, causing you to overeat foods high in calories, fat, and sugar.

It's not just that people overeat, you may also crave high-fat, high-calorie foods when you're stressed. At the same time, your body is storing more fat than it would be when you're not stressed. More fat storage leads to weight gain.

However, stress is complicated. It can also have the opposite effect. When some people are stressed, they don't have an appetite and skip meals.

Physical vs. Emotional Hunger

There are two different types of hunger. There's hunger that's based on your body's physical needs and there's hunger that results from extreme emotions.

When it's been a while since you ate and your body is telling you that it needs food, that's physical hunger. Your stomach may start growling or you may find yourself suddenly hangry.

Your blood sugar gets low if you haven't eaten in a while. This can cause you to feel hungry, irritable, shaky, and lightheaded—to name a few symptoms.

Emotional hunger is different. It's when you overeat in response to negative emotions, even when you're not hungry.

Research suggests that some activities could help emotional eaters who have difficulties maintaining a healthy weight. These include exercising, practicing mindful eating, regulating emotions, and maintaining a positive body image.

How To Stop Stress Eating

It can be difficult to stop stress eating, especially when you've got cravings. It's also hard because eating is pleasurable. It makes you feel better in the moment, especially during such times.

Later, you may not feel better, however. Stress-related overeating can make you feel sluggish and lazy, bad about your body, and disappointed in yourself. Here's how to avoid these pitfalls of stress eating.

Choose Your Foods Wisely

When you're stressed, you may find yourself reaching for a cupcake or cookie instead of a snack with less fat and fewer calories. You're not alone if these are your go-to comforts when you're stressed. High-calorie, high-fat foods are what people crave when they're stressed.

By snacking wisely, you can satiate your cravings with healthier fuel for your body. Aside from avoiding highly processed foods, focus on nutritious foods you tolerate, like veggies, fruits, and nuts. Include some healthy fat in your snack or meal. Healthy fat is one of your body's key building blocks. You'll want some—but not too much.

Adjust Your Meal Proportions

If there's a chance that you'll burn fewer calories in the hours after eating due to stress, shift your servings a bit to slash calories without having to eat less food. For example, eating one and a half cups of mixed veggies and a half cup of brown rice instead of one cup of each can save you around 60-75 calories. Instead of one cup of quinoa, mix half of that with half a cup of spinach to save about 100 calories.

Trading in a portion of your dense grains, even healthy ones, for low-cal, fiber- and water-rich veggies is an easy way to accomplish quick calorie savings that don't require sacrificing volume.

Know Your Triggers

Stress can come from a number of places in all areas of life. Sometimes it's avoidable or preventable and sometimes it's not. It could be caused by a certain person or situation—and it can have a number of effects on your body.

Eating is often used as a way to cope with stress. Among adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress, 33 percent eat because it's a distraction from stress.

Females are more likely than males to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors due to stress. More females than males report eating to cope with stress and not being able to stop themselves.

Take note of when you're stressed. Did a certain event or situation trigger stressful feelings? Stress can come from family, work, finances, relationships, and more.

When you know you've had a high-stress day, try prioritizing stress-relieving activities that don't involve food. Finding a fun activity you enjoy can help take your mind off the stress and off eating.

Practice Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is a way to bring greater awareness to the experience of eating. Mindfulness training, for example, has been shown to help some people cope with stressful experiences and reduce their cravings to turn to "comfort foods."

You can practice mindful eating by paying attention to your food, on purpose, every single moment, without judgment. Focus on the sensation—how the food feels in your mouth, what it tastes like. People who adopt mindful eating as a practice are likely to lose weight, even though that's not the purpose of this style of eating.

To get a taste of mindfulness, try this raisin exercise.

  1. Put one—and only one—raisin in front of you.
  2. Pretend you know nothing about raisins. Imagine it's your first time ever seeing one.
  3. Look at the raisin and pick it up.
  4. Feel its weight.
  5. Examine its surface, its texture, and its appearance.
  6. Smell it and notice how you react.
  7. Roll it between your fingers and listen for the sounds it makes. Notice its stickiness.
  8. Notice your feelings about this object.
  9. Next, put the raisin between your lips and hold it there. Notice how you feel.
  10. Then, let it roll back into your mouth—but don't chew just yet. What do you notice? Taste? Salivation? What do you want to do?
  11. Now, you can bite down—but only once. Take note of the sensations.
  12. Slowly chew, noticing any changes with each bite.
  13. Chew until the raisin is completely liquified before swallowing.
  14. Close your eyes after you swallow to notice any feelings after this experience.

It takes qualities like nonjudging, patience, openness, and trust to practice mindful eating. For example, the first thing you encounter in this exercise is your judgment about raisins—whether you like them. Becoming aware of judgments is a critical part of mindfulness.

Take a Quick Post-Meal Walk

Get walking to get health benefits. Whenever possible, try to build in a brisk 15-minute stroll after meals. Can't fit in 15 minutes? Go for 10, even five; just breaking a sitting pattern and getting your blood pumping can shift your metabolism.

One study showed 30 minutes of walking after a meal can have a positive effect on blood glucose. In young healthy volunteers, peak blood glucose was lower after 30 minutes of walking after a meal, regardless of types of carbohydrates consumed.

Blood sugar that is consistently high puts you at risk of developing insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Excess weight is a major factor in the development of insulin resistance. A walk after meals help prevent this.

Walking offers other benefits too. It can also help you with weight management.

If you can, take a walk outdoors. Walking in nature gives you an added bonus. Green spaces may be able to improve your mood. Even watching a nature video will work if you can't get outside.

When To Reach Out to a Healthcare Provider

Getting professional help when you need it can make a big difference. Talk to a healthcare provider if you're feeling overwhelmed and need more strategies for coping with stress and building healthy eating habits. A psychologist or other mental health provider can help you identify what in your life contributes to stress and put together an action plan for how you can make changes.

A Quick Review

Stress eating is a real thing, and so is weight gain that can come from overindulging. It doesn't help that you have cravings for high-calorie, high-fat foods during times of stress.

Learning ways to manage stress and become more conscious of what you're eating can help you beat the cravings. Don't be shy to reach out if you need help. Healthcare providers can offer tremendous support.

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