Avoiding Stress Eating

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • It’s easy to do. You come home from work after a stressful day and reach for the bag of chips. You have a fight or break-up and sit down with a bowl (or the whole carton) of ice-cream. We are used to feeding out moods, especially when we feel down or stressed.

    There is actually a physical reason why anxiety and stress cause us to reach for the junk food. When our stress level rises, so do the hormone cortisol - which is beneficial in giving us the energy to fight off attackers or to tackle a problem but also makes us crave salty and sweet foods. When we are faced with a life threatening situation and expend a lot of energy to be safe, these cravings help our body quickly replenish our energy levels. But when stress isn’t life-threatening, these types of foods tend to simply add calories and pounds.

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    We reach for certain foods on an emotional level as well. Foods that bring you comfort or conjure up pleasant memories help us through the stressful moments in life. You might crave foods your mother made you when you were young, making you feel safe and secure, or you may want to replicate a past time when you were happy, including the food. We also use foods socially, and when stressed you might reach out to friends and ask for support over a hot fudge sundae or plate of delicious, but fattening, appetizers.

    Stress eating often ends up making us feel worse than before. In the short-term it helped, but after you might feel guilty. If you use food to combat stress in your life, you may find the pounds quickly adding up and suddenly you are 10, 20, 30 or more pounds overweight. Numerous studies have shown a link between anxiety and obesity - although scientists aren’t sure whether the anxiety is a cause of the obesity or those with anxiety are at a higher risk of obesity. Either way, you can change your eating habits to include healthier options and reduce your risk of gaining weight during times of stress.

    Tips for Managing Stress Eating

    Eat small meals throughout the day. Don’t allow yourself to get hungry and reach for the closest food (and make sure you eat breakfast). Eating throughout the day may also help keep your sugar levels even and help you to better manage your stress. Remember - being hungry and stressed can be a disaster.

    Snack on nuts. Nut may lower cortisol levels, helping you stay de-stressed. Nuts have a lot of calories, so keep your snacking to a minimum.

    Substitute junk food for healthy food in your refrigerator. Be prepared for stressful times when you reach for the ice-cream or a high-calorie snack. Instead, fill your frig with sliced fruit, yogurt and other healthy choices you can quickly grab. A healthy diet that can reduce stress consists of fruits and vegetables, proteins, whole grain carbohydrates, fish and lots of water.

    Find active alternatives. Taking up a hobby, going for a walk or spending time with a friend (doing something other than eating) are all good ways to combat stress and anxiety. When you are ready to reach for the chips, reach for a hobby that keeps your hands busy (knitting, painting, woodworking, etc), once you are involved in your hobby your stress level and desire for food may decrease. Taking a walk or exercising has also been shown to significantly reduce stress levels.

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    Engage in stress-reducing, healthy habits. Getting a good night’s sleep, eating right, exercising and relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation will lower your overall anxiety levels and reduce your need to feed your anxiety.

    Understand your stressful times. You may find that you are most susceptible to snacking because of stress when you get home from work or in the late afternoon, when energy tends to go down. Be prepared for these times. Keep a few nuts or some fruit in your car to eat on the way home so you aren’t so tempted to stop off for fast food or grab unhealthy but quick choices for dinner when you get home.

    Give yourself 15 minutes. If you are absolutely sure that donut is going to make you feel better, wait 15 minutes before eating it. Use the time to eat a healthy snack, do something constructive, move around or exercise. Chances are, after 15 minutes the donut isn’t going to be important.


    “Combatting Stress with a Balanced Nutritional Diet,” Date Unknown, Jayne Ritchie, Stress Management Society

Published On: August 05, 2013