Is Stress Eating Packing on the Pounds?

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • Back in 2007, a study on stress eating and its relationship to obesity and specifically to the types of food we choose to eat when we are “stressed out,” suggested:


    1- We are not “imagining it.”  We do gravitate to food when we encounter acute stress, and the eating can continue if the stress becomes chronic.

    2 - In some people, stress actually causes a decrease in food consumption.

    3 - Chronic stress is associated with an increased desire for energy and nutrient dense foods, namely foods high in sugar and fat.

    4 - Chronic stress does appear to link to excess weight, especially in men

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    5 - Stress-induced eating may be one behavior pattern contributing to obesity trends


    I’m sure most of us can identify with stress eating.  It’s probably one of the most difficult habits to modify, because when you find yourself in the moment, it is nearly impossible to gather the mental strength necessary to do something other than eating.  Hitting a wall with your fist, pounding the person who is the source of your stress, breaking something is just not an acceptable behavior.  But digging into a cheesecake or tub of ice cream or one pound bag of jellybeans can sure detonate the feelings in the moment.  There’s usually mortification or depression or both, following the binge because you can't believe you ate the whole thing.  And if the stress is unrelenting, bags of jellybeans and gallons of ice cream can disappear over days and weeks. 


    The most common stressors include: unemployment, financial pressures, work stress, unrelenting fatigue, health problems, and relationship conflicts.  The typical pattern of eating associated with stress is binge-type eating or consuming large quantities of food in short periods of time.  You may become so accustomed to treating your feelings of stress with food, that it becomes your first response as soon as you experience this negative emotion.  Eating may also help to distract you from feeling stress and dealing with it.  Invariably, you will feel guilty and regret the out-of-control feeding(s) that happened.


    So what can you do to avoid stress eating?


    • Try yoga, meditation or relaxation classes to help you manage the stress.
    • Consider keeping a food diary for a month and identify "stress moments" and the types and quantities of food you eat when you are stressed. 
    • Get rid of high sugar and high fat tempting foods in your home environment and substitute fruit, vegetables, hot tea, a low calorie broth as your go-to foods for stressful moments.
    • Join a support group so you have someone to turn to during stressful periods.
    • Turn to exercise when feeling stressed – a brisk walk outside, a kickboxing class, or other exercise modalities can help you to manage stress.
    • Do not go for long periods of time without eating – that behavior can make you vulnerable to a binge as soon as stress strikes.
    • Learn to recognize the very beginning feelings of stress and intercept them with some of the above recommendations.
    • Decide if you need professional help.  Therapy can help you identify stressors, modify your stress with new coping skills, and offer you insights into long term stress management.


  • My favorite snack when the stress levels start to rise? I buy roasted sheets of seaweed, which you can find in small packages that average 25-60 calories.  The time and dexterity needed to neatly eat the paper thin sheets allows me to calm down.  And the calorie cost is low!!

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    Amy Hendel is a health professional, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch?  Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily #HealthGal1103.  Catch her guest appearances on Marie! on Hallmark and other local and national news and talk shows.

Published On: April 05, 2013