How can I control stress-induced eating?

Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics
Stress and emotional eating makes it harder for most people to lose weight. In general it causes excessive weight gain. And there are several reasons why. First, stress causes many people to stress eat. Stress eating is a type of emotional eating, which contributes to excess calories and when done often enough causes weight gain. In addition, the type so food people crave when stressed are generally high fat/sugary foods. Second, stress causes the body to produce more of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that promotes body fat, especially around the stomach. Third, when someone is stressed they generally sleep less. Less sleep, chronic fatigue causes the hormone ghrelin to rise. Ghrelin is the primary hunger hormone, and causes someone to feel hungry even when they don’t need to eat.
Dr. Andrea Pennington, MD
Integrative Medicine
Stress and emotional eating are probably the most insidious saboteurs of weight loss efforts for many Americans. Food is only fuel. And as it is meant to provide the body with the energy to live our destiny we must instill this new mantra into our culture in order to save us from an early demise. It's not an easy pattern for many to get past because when we are emotionally hurting, it's much easier and much more comfortable to ease our pain with cakes, pies or alcohol than it is to face the root cause of the negative emotion.

If you find yourself picking up food that is not on your meal plan, stuffing yourself to the point of discomfort, eating unconsciously or eating to calm anger or ease depression, get help. Before you eat, try this consciousness exercise. Ask yourself, "Is this food going to nourish my body? Or, am I trying to numb my pain or stress?"” The point is to become aware of your eating habits -- in the moment. If you are not hungry or the food choice is not one meant for nourishment, then drink a glass of water, go for a walk, take a deep breath, pray or meditate. Make a conscious effort to stop the cycle of food abuse.
Craig B. Primack, MD
General Practice

Stress eating is a subtype of emotional eating. Emotional eating is eating secondary to other reasons that primarily hunger although it may feel at times like hunger. 

As our stresses build usually from a low in the morning to a peak sometime in the afternoon or evening, many people seek carbohydrate based foods to help decrease the stress. 

The first step is identification that stress eating is occurring and then trying several stress reduction strategies to help change the behavior. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation and exercise are several very effective strategies for beginning to overcome stress eating. 

Many people cannot overcome stress eating alone and should consider treatment from a medical obesity specialist or licensed psychologist with special training in treating emotional eating. 


Paula Greer
Midwifery Nursing

Stress induced eating is caused by the high cortisol levels released when under constant or chronic stress. When cortisol levels are high there is a good chance that you will experience cravings for carbs as your insulin levels are affected by the cortisol produced as well as many of the other chemical neurotransmitters and hormone levels like grehlin and leptin.

Your body may crave carbs/ sugar in an effort to get that feel good feeling but that feeling will be temporary which sets off a vicious cycle of eating the wrong foods in your effort to make those bad feelings go away.

The best way to control stress eating is to learn healthy substitutions that can make you feel good without eating. Eating 6 small meals and snacks a day will prevent hunger. Avoiding the five food felons will prevent those bad carb and sugar cravings. Walking will release endorphins that will help you feel better without eating those foods that lead to dangerous belly fat. Getting regular exercise will help you to handle chronic stress while feeling better to. Being kind and loving to yourself and putting yourself first will also help with stress eating. Taking time to call a friend, planning a day to yourself, meditation, yoga, an exercise class are all ways to cope with stress without turning to food.

Brooke Randolph
Marriage & Family Therapy
Eating when stressed may not be the best choice for coping, but it's likely what has become easiest for you. The following ideas can help you to stop stress eating by replacing stress eating with another healthier habit.

Another oral habit may be the easiest switch. Consider drinking water, sipping coffee/tea, or chewing gum when stressed instead of reaching for salty, sweet, or fatty foods. Chewing and swallowing (even if it is just your own saliva) can make you feel more full as well.

To prevent yourself from eating when stressed, you may need to do something else distracting. To keep your mind off of eating and what is stressing you, exercise or cleaning may be a healthy alternative for you. Cleaning also has the benefit of keeping your hands busy and away from snacks. Folding laundry seems like an excellent alternative to me. I wouldn't want to risk dirtying my fresh laundry with crumbs.

Journaling or blogging can distract you, keep your hands busy, and help you process the stressor that is causing distress. By the time you finish writing, you may have found a solution and no longer need eating to cope with the stress.

One of my primary stress management and healthy living tips is to eat good food -- as in healthy, good for you food. It is not the best solution to breaking a habit of stress eating because it will leave you open to more temptation to have something salty, sweet, or fatty 'just this once' at some point, but it may be the easiest switch. Think about almonds, berries, or other low calorie snacks.
Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Numerous studies have shown that an overactive stress response is associated with overeating, changes in blood chemistry and hormones, and, in particular, a decrease in the amino acid tryptophan. Why is this important? This amino acid is a necessary building block in the mood-regulating neurotransmitter called serotonin.

Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression (or simply a depressed mood), insomnia, anxiety, anger, and continued binging on sugary, fatty foods. Low serotonin levels are also associated with overeating, even binging, on carbohydrates because of its role in making tryptophan usable in the body as serotonin. All of which can then lead to energy loss and weight gain, especially the most unhealthy kind of all around the midlines and waistlines.

Like a drug addict looking for our next hit, we want this serotonin when we attack the kitchen seeking sugary, nutrient-poor carbohydrates. Our brains release a short burst of serotonin when we eat simple sugars and carbohydrates; we feel good for a moment, but soon return to our low-serotonin state, and crash and burn. That's when we crave more sugar and simple carbohydrates in hopes of feeling that little high again...and the downward spiral continues.
Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged

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Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.