According to a poll by the American Psychological Association, almost 80% of Americans said the pandemic was an added source of stress in 2020, and about ⅔ of respondents said their stress increased during this uncertain time. And a separate study found that the stress of lockdowns led to an uptick in unhealthy snacking and weight gain. It’s perfectly natural, and even healthy, to participate in a little stress or emotional eating from time to time. I’ve done this myself! But if your go-to coping mechanism is to overeat or indulge in unhealthy food when you’re stressed out, this habit can undermine your health, promote weight gain, interfere with your sleep, and worsen your emotional health. Here are 7 ways to stop stress eating.
How stress impacts what you eat
When you’re stressed out, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. Under normal circumstances, as your stress subsides, cortisol levels return to normal and you’re no worse off. However, the stress of adulting, paying bills, taking care of aging parents, helping kids through zoom school, health worries, etc., can set your body’s alarm system into overdrive, resulting in chronically high cortisol levels. When this happens, you can experience digestive problems, difficulty concentrating, depression and anxiety, and weight gain.
The link between stress and weight gain is clear. Cortisol has been shown to boost your appetite and intensify cravings for comfort foods. It also promotes the storage of fat in your belly. One small study found that after being fed a big meal, stressed-out women burned about 100 fewer calories. Over time, this could result in significant weight gain.
Plus, it’s harder to fall asleep when you're stressed out, and sleep disturbances can also increase your appetite and cravings for unhealthy foods. Insufficient sleep also delays feelings of fullness, so you’re more likely to overeat. (Here are 8 natural ways to help you sleep better.)
1. Examine why you eat
In order to stop stress eating, you first need to learn the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. When you’re physically hungry, you experience sensations like a grumbling stomach, a headache, lightheadedness, irritability, and distraction. These signs are your body’s way of saying it’s time to refuel.
Emotional hunger is different. Instead of these physical cues, it’s the desire to eat for emotional reasons, like stress, anger, fear, sadness, and loneliness. In the moment, food might provide an instant mood boost, but this effect doesn’t last. Instead, it can lead to overeating, which might promote critical self-talk that in turn, can worsen your stress. And even if you don’t have an unhealthy internal dialogue, food doesn’t help you effectively address your moods.
If you find yourself reaching for food in response to stress or another emotion, it’s usually more helpful to determine an alternative way to manage your mood. For instance, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might be able to dial down your stress after writing a to-do lists of tasks that need to get done first. Another alternative could be taking a quick walk to clear your head and burn some negative energy. Sometimes, finding the right tool is a matter of trial and error.
2. Develop a healthy eating schedule
When you eat at more predictable times, it’s easier to identify your physical hunger because your body adapts to the routine. As best as you can, develop a consistent schedule, spacing your three meals about four to five hours apart. If you’re eating lunch at 1 PM and dinner at 7 PM, plan to have a healthy snack in between. (Here are 12 healthy sweet snacks to try.)
3. Aim for balanced meals
Many people I’ve worked with over the years have a tendency to eat a light breakfast or skip it altogether, and then they’re ravenous by lunchtime, or they’ve snacked their way through mid-day. When you eat more balanced, satisfying meals, you’ll help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, nourish your body with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and energetic and control physical hunger. Controlling your physical hunger is a key strategy to overcoming stress eating because when you’re physically content, you’re more in control of your eating habits. (Get your free recipe booklet with 10 balanced meals and snacks you can prep in less than 10 min.)
A balanced meal has these components:
A big portion of produce (either a fruit or veggie or mix of the two).
A satisfying serving of protein (such as poultry, tuna, Greek yogurt, beans, or eggs).
A serving of fat, ideally from plant sources, like nuts, seeds, avocados, or extra virgin olive oil, or a mix of these foods.
A small portion of a starchy vegetable or a whole grain carb.
Many people trip up over carbs because they’re easy to overeat and often, misplaced at the center of your plate. An easy rule of thumb is to have twice the amount of veggies to starches. This balance helps you fill up with generous portions of food, and allows you to enjoy all the foods you love while optimizing your nutrient intake.
4. Learn how to eat more mindfully
When you read about how to stop stress eating, chances are, you’ll encounter a lot of advice to turn off your digital distractions so you can be totally mindful during your meal. This is an ideal scenario, but I don’t think it’s always practical. (Just me???) I confess that I often eat breakfast while checking emails, and I’m usually sitting at my desk during lunch, too. So if you fall into this camp, take these steps to tune into your meal or snack.
Take a moment before your meal to assess your hunger. How strong or light is it?
Make sure you have a plate (or a substitute, like a napkin) so you can see what you’re eating and put your food or fork down between bites.
Ask yourself what you’re enjoying most about your food, paying attention to temperature, texture, and taste. For instance, is it creamy, crunchy, salty, chewy, cold, or warm?
Linger over your meal for at least 20 minutes, chewing thoroughly.
As you wind down, assess your hunger again. Are you satisfied? Would it feel good to have a few more bites? Do you feel like you would be more comfortable if you had eaten a little less?
This isn’t a policing activity! You’re being thoughtful about what you’re eating, and using the facts you gather to help inform your eating decisions.
5. Talk to yourself in loving language
It takes time to learn how to stop stress eating, so don’t sweat it if you don’t get the hang of it right away. Beating yourself up after polishing off a bag of chips isn’t helpful or self-respecting. It’s more constructive to talk to yourself lovingly and remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can. Sometimes, looking at your eating habits over a week instead of a day can help you see all the times you chose to eat vegetables or how many nights you cooked dinner instead of ordering pizza. When you take this birds-eye view of your eating habits, it’s easier to spot and acknowledge all the things you did well, which will make you feel better and more confident in your abilities to navigate your complex food world.
Also, remember that you’re not trying to avoid stress eating at all costs--you’re trying to be more deliberate about your food choices and feel more in control of your habits. This takes a lot of practice.
6. Don’t restrict your favorite foods
I don’t believe in eliminating or restricting your favorite splurge-worthy foods. When foods are off-limits, they’re more irresistible, which creates an internal tug-of-war that’s emotionally draining. Rather than avoiding foods, like French fries or ice cream, include them in your balanced meal plan. There are no set rules for how often to indulge. Use your body as your guide. When you open up the dialogue with your body and learn how foods influence your fullness, energy levels, digestive system, and so on, you’re more inspired to eat in ways that make you feel like your best self and you’re naturally inclined to ditch foods that make you feel crummier. That doesn’t mean you’ll never splurge, but it may mean you feel the need to do it a little less often or that you indulge in smaller portions.
7. Find healthy ways to cope with stress
Without question, one of the best ways to stop stress eating is to find healthy ways to manage your stress. You can’t always control life, but you can work on how you respond to stressful events. The American Psychological Association offers these stress-busting tips:
Take a warm bath.
Try progressive muscle relaxation techniques, using an app or a YouTube video to guide you.
Set aside up to five minutes to try meditation, using an app, like Insight Timer or Headspace.
Try an online workout or go for a walk. Find activities that you enjoy, which will inspire you to continue to participate in them.
Go outside and soak up the scenery. Even just a few minutes in nature can naturally calm your mind and lower your stress.
Create a calm sleep environment, and try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at routine times.
Stay connected to friends and family, even if you can’t visit with them in person.
Seek help from a therapist.