There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who eat when stressed and those who starve. Of course, that is oversimplification, as how much and what we eat when stressed can depend on many factors, such as when, where, and how long we’re feeling the heat. But most of us can think of people we know who tend to lose weight during stressful times (such as after a breakup) while others may find that stress leads to frequent trips to the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. What is stress eating? Why do many of us turn to food for stress relief? And if we do, what are the best foods to turn to if we just can’t help ourselves?
First off, please know that finding comfort in food during stressful times is completely normal. Yet overeating regularly, especially when it’s combined with lower activity levels (say, when stuck at home), can negatively affect health and dampen mood and energy levels, all while actually worsening feelings of stress and anxiety. This can be quite a vicious cycle.
What is Stress Eating?
Have you ever noticed the strongest cravings for food can hit when you’re feeling your weakest emotionally? Perhaps you’re facing a difficult problem or a painful loss, or maybe you’re just bored or feeling unsettled or uncertain with what the future holds. (Right now, who isn’t?)
It’s no secret that we don’t just eat when we’re physically hungry. Many of us enjoy food as a reward, for celebration, and for comfort when we just, well, feel bad.
Worse, during those times, we tend to turn to sweets, like a pint of ice cream, or high-calorie foods, like pizza, burgers, and fries, and then overeat, past feeling full, to numb the uncomfortable feelings.
Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is when we’re using food to fill emotional needs. Sadly, it doesn’t actually fix problems and usually makes us feel worse. And while eating for a pick-me-up, reward, or celebration from time to time isn’t a bad thing, if it becomes the go-to impulse when you’re stressed, lonely, bored, angry, or just tired, it can lead to an unhealthy pattern that leads to weight gain and feeling powerless over food.
No matter what causes you to overeat, the result is often the same: you reach for food for temporary relief, but the same emotions that you are trying to cover up return in full-force, with the additional burden of guilt and shame, leading you to again reach for food for stress relief.
There has to be a better way!
Taking Control of Stress Eating
To help tame those stress-eating sessions, stop before you grab that bag of chips, pint of ice cream, or have that second helping of mac and cheese. Here’s 16 ways how:
1. Manage stress. Short-term stress tends to decrease appetite via the hormone epinephrine (aka adrenaline). But if the stress is long-lasting, the adrenal glands pump out more of the hormone cortisol, which can increase appetite. To help manage stress, use proven stress-busting techniques like meditation, deep breathing, forest bathing, yoga, meditation, or even just a stroll through your neighborhood.
2. Check in on hunger. Before you grab something, anything, to eat, take a moment to check in on your hunger. Are you really hungry? Is your tummy starting to rumble? Or are you just bored, lonely, scared, sad, or stressed? Try taking ten deep breaths before you decide to eat.
3. Stay hydrated. Many people mistake thirst for hunger. Keep a water bottle or jug near you to sip on throughout the day. (Interestingly, being dehydrated can also lead to depressed mood and energy, which can lead to overeating.)
4. Watch out for booze. Relaxing with a glass of wine or a pint of beer is not a problem unless it lowers your inhibitions and increases appetite. Then that glass or pint can turn into more, coupled with an increased chance of overeating. All those excess calories can lead to weight gain, guilt, and more stress.
5. Ask for help. Even if you are alone, reach out to friends, family, or your social support group. You are not in this alone.
6. Take a break. Has it been a long day with focused work and lots of meetings? Allow yourself to stop and take a break. Pour yourself a cup of tea or enjoy some fruit-infused water and give yourself a moment to just be.
7. Write it down. Stress eating isn’t always a conscious behavior. Write down not only when and what you’re eating but why. Watch for patterns that show if you’re eating for hunger or to dampen emotions.
8. Give yourself something better to do. If you find you’re eating because you’re bored, start exploring new hobbies—draw, paint, write, build something, read a book, play with or train a pet, listen to music, play an instrument, learn a new language, start a garden, organize your living space, etc. Many of these are free or very inexpensive and will be more fun and more productive than mindlessly eating.
9. Exercise. Whether biking through town, hiking in nature, jogging through your neighborhood, or choosing an at-home exercise plan, being physically active can boost mood and reduce stress. What’s more, physically fit people tend to be more resistant to the effects of stress.
10. Get plenty of sleep. If you aren’t getting enough sleep (shoot for 7 to 9 hours every night), your body can start craving sugary foods for a quick burst of energy. Getting enough sleep helps control appetite and food cravings and helps put the brakes on stress eating.
11. Don’t deprive yourself. If you really want to screw up your eating, wait until you’re super hungry, worn down, and feeling emotional before you eat. To avoid setting yourself up for failure, eat satisfying but healthier foods when you’re mildly hungry and allow yourself some occasional “play” foods—so you don’t feel deprived, rebellious, and ravenous.
12. Live and eat in the present moment. It’s easy to fret about mistakes from the past or worry about what the future could bring, as well as to distract yourself from any of these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Mindful eating, just like mindfulness in general, encourages awareness of the experience of right now.
13. Embrace intuitive eating. When you’re under stress, this isn’t likely the time to start a restrictive diet. Instead, take this time to learn to trust your body and your intuition when it comes to eating.
14. Practice self-compassion. Do your best given your current circumstances and understand that beating yourself up about past missteps actually increases stress and can lead to more unhealthy behaviors. Be kind to yourself!
15. Chew some gum. There’s some research indicating that chewing gum can lead to greater relaxation and reduce stress and perhaps even better thinking. Because it’s simple and low cost, it doesn’t hurt to give it a try to see if it’s effective for you.
16. Snack healthfully. If the urge to eat is real, let yourself eat. Just choose foods that support your goals as well as your cravings.
Foods for Stress Relief
Now that you have a few more tools in your toolbox when it comes to reducing emotional eating, are there foods that can actually help relieve stress? Indeed, there are! Here are some of our favorites:
- Fresh citrus fruit like oranges and grapefruits
- Sliced apples or pears with or without a dip like yogurt or peanut butter
- Carrot sticks, celery sticks, or cucumber slices with Greek yogurt dip, homemade hummus, or veggie dip
- Mixed berries
- Strawberries or a banana with a drizzle of chocolate
- Chickpea snacks
- Kefir or yogurt with fresh fruit
- Pumpkin or sunflower seeds
- High-protein melted chocolate “ice cream”
- Sweet and savory nuts
- Avocado toast
- Pistachios, almonds, walnuts, or cashews
- Air-popped popcorn
- Kale chips
- Protein smoothies or a smoothie bowl
- Keto fat bombs
- Protein bites
- Beef or turkey jerky
Even when snacking on healthier foods, you still want to eat mindfully and to keep an eye on portion sizes. Serve yourself a single portion of the chosen food rather than chowing out of a large container. If you have trouble with portion sizes, one effective strategy is to pre-portion snacks once they come into the house, so you naturally eat a single serving.
Another good idea is to keep healthy snacks where you can see them while putting those you want to limit out of sight. For example, keep veggies and fruits on the counter and at eye level in the fridge. Sweet treats, on the other hand, can go in the back of the top or bottom shelf in the pantry.
These are stressful times, so again, if you’ve found that you’ve been eating for stress relief, you’re not alone! And you can get out of the vicious cycle of stress eating and then stressing more. You’ve got this!