Here’s Why Stress Eating Happens, and How to Stop It

When feelings of anxiety make your cortisol levels spike, your body can respond by eating your way through the office pantry — but experts say there are ways to quit.

Kapustin Ignor/ Shutterstock
Kapustin Ignor/ Shutterstock

Food can often feel like a tangible source of solace when you’re stressed. Comfort foods can spark joy, make you feel safe, and even elicit nostalgic memories but over time, the temptation to reach for a bag of chips and devour the whole bag can signal a more serious problem.

“Stress eating is a coping mechanism,” Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Boise State University who teaches a Psychology of Eating course, tells Thrive. “From a psychological perspective, it can’t erase the problem you’re trying to solve.”

There’s actually a scientific reason why you’re inclined to ransack your pantry when you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, or panicked by an imminent deadline. Harvard researchers have found that emotional eating comes as a result of your body’s spiked cortisol and insulin levels when anxious and/or sleep-deprived. The hormonal change signals to your hunger hormones (specifically one called ghrelin) that you’re suddenly hungry and the feeling of fullness you would usually feel after a typical portion size dissipates for the time being. 

Plus, emotional eating isn’t only about anxiety. Studies find that people tend to overeat when they feel bored, or when they’re constantly around the presence of junk food at their jobs.

Emotional eating might ease your stress in the short term, but Pritchard says the coping mechanism has no long-term benefits. Plus, facing your emotions head-on starts with being mindful about your stressors, and about your relationship with food. Here are a few tips to help.

Pay attention to your body’s “alarm stage”

In a stressful situation, your body may not be able to tell the difference between a deadline at work, and a real life-threatening stressor and Pritchard says that’s why we start craving high-fat, high-sugar foods. This moment is called the “alarm stage of stress,” she explains. “Your body starts gearing up by releasing cortisol and epinephrine.” In order to combat this stage, she notes that it’s important to label it in the moment, and physically part from it. “Get up, walk around the block, clear your head, and take some slow deep breaths,” she suggests. “Simply breathing and separating yourself can help you counteract this stage.”

Reframe what comfort food looks like

Stress eating can be unhealthy because most people opt for foods that lack in nutritional value often because we see healthy food as boring, and junk food as exciting. “Sometimes junk food can feel so satisfying because these are foods we simply never allow ourselves to eat,” Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, tells Thrive. “That’s why it’s best to develop an approach to eating where no foods are off limits, and where all foods can be enjoyed in moderation.” Fitzsimmons-Craft explains that when you label certain foods as “off-limits,” your brain has trouble stopping when you start to indulge. And when you’re stressed, your negative emotions can act as a trigger for overeating. “Practice allowing yourself to eat all foods in moderation, and then comfort food may not have such power over you,” she urges. “And with that, consider how delicious traditionally ‘healthy foods’ can be.”

Decipher between hunger and stress

When you’re stressed or anxious at work, you’ll likely snack on what’s available to you in the office, even if you’re not actually hungry. In these moments, Fitzsimmons-Crafts suggests asking yourself if you’re truly hungry, or if another emotion is driving you to eat. “If it’s something else, practice identifying times when you’ve had those feelings, and try alternative coping strategies instead, like going on a walk, or calling a friend,” she suggests.  Pritchard calls these alternative strategies “problem-focused coping,” and adds that carving out time to deal with stressors can help you identify when you’re bored-eating, or hunger-eating. “These designated times help you listen to your body,” she explains. “You can dive head-first into the office candy jar, or you can find a more effective way.”

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