How to Know If You're Stress Eating (and What You Can Do to Stop)
FYI that it's totally normal to stress eat sometimes.
If you haven't reached for a tub of cookie dough, wheel of brie, frozen pizza, or family-size two-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids (just me?) during a break-up, college finals, while cramming for a big work presentation, or during a global pandemic, congratulations. You're one of perhaps 12 people (rough estimate) who are immune to this natural, biological, and psychological phenomenon. However, if you have ever found yourself stress eating, either on occasion or seemingly 24/7, welcome. We have a lot to talk about.
What Exactly Is Stress Eating, Anyway?
Simply put, stress eating is "the act of eating when feeling stressed and seeking comfort," says Dalina Soto, R.D.N., founder of Nutritiously Yours.
"Biochemically, stress eating is when your body is eating because of the increase in cortisol (the stress-response hormone)," says Lisa Mastela, R.D., M.P.H., founder of Bumpin' Blends, a pre-made smoothie company. "Cortisol triggers cravings for pleasure, or for sweet or salty indulgent foods."
When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol, which triggers the release of glucose (aka quickly accessible energy that's stored in your body). That's because, "in an evolutionary sense of the stress response, your body needs glucose to support your muscles running away from that metaphorical lion chasing you," explains Mastela.
"So, your body is like, 'Hey! I need to run! I need glucose!' and cortisol responds, 'I got you!'" she says. Then, since you're suddenly using up your rainy-day stores of glucose, your brain thinks you need to eat high-glucose foods ASAP to mitigate it, and you reach for foods high in glucose (aka sweets or carbs).
Stress eating is certainly one type of emotional eating, but they're not always the same thing. "I wouldn't blame cortisol [for all forms of emotional eating]," explains Lisa Hayim, M.S., R.D., founder of the Fork the Noise program, which focuses on mindfulness and nutrition education. In other cases, you could point to the brain's need for feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine (one of the chemicals responsible for your workout high)," she says. This is one of the reasons you may turn to food in times of stress or emotional discomfort: Eating induces the release of dopamine, which soothes you and makes you feel happy, she explains.
And it's not such a bad thing! "I don't think stress eating is a bad thing; It's your body's way of telling you that it needs something," says Soto. "It wants to feel good. It wants comfort, which food provides."
When does stress eating become a cause for concern? "When people try to numb the feelings of stress with food instead of dealing with the stress," says Soto. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel better about a stressful situation — and having that cookie or ice cream can make you feel better," she explains. "But you also have to deal with the stress and have other ways to deal with it when food isn't going to make you feel better." (More on that soon.)
Stress Eating vs. Boredom Eating
Stress eating is about satisfying cortisol's needs, whereas boredom eating is literally just eating to break up the monotony of being bored, eating out of habit, or eating because [insert food here] is available, says Mastela. "It's really tough to distinguish the two, but stress eating may feel like a more intense craving for something, boredom eating is more 'eating because it's there.'" (Related: Here's Why You're Hungrier On Rest Days)
"In my opinion, we eat for many reasons outside of just 'physical hunger,'" (aka the need for energy via food), says Hayim. "I call all the different reasons we eat 'types of hunger' because I believe in radical permission to honor the desire to eat in order to maintain the mind-body connection."
This "types of hunger" system isn't exclusive to Hayim but rather is adopted by many pros who encourage mindful eating. Some other examples include mouth hunger (when you eat something sweet because it tastes good) or memory hunger (in which you have a positive memory linked with a particular food and eat it to relive that feeling), or curiosity hunger (when you just want to try something to see what it tastes like), she says. "And all of those are valid reasons to eat!"
Stressing About Food Choices Actually Makes Things Worse
The cruelest irony is that stressing about your eating habits can then cause a slew of physical and mental health problems — which, depending on your stress snack of choice, can mean that the stress is more damaging to your health than the food itself, says Soto.
"Oftentimes emotions swallow you whole, and before you know it you've blacked out, eaten a pint of ice cream, and suddenly are left with the original emotions you tried to run from — but now you add guilt [from stress eating] into the mix," says Mastela. (Coooool.)
It creates a vicious cycle, where stress can lead to stress eating, and then stress eating begets more stress. So if you're eating because you're stressed, and then you're stressed about what you're eating, you're compounding the problem. And now, potentially, you're more stressed because you just read this paragraph. (Sorry.)
It's a bit trite to say "don't stress about it," but that's the gist of the recommendations of experts — do your best to find a bit more freedom and peace with your food choices.
How to Stop Stress Eating
First things first: Remember that health is different for every person, says Soto. That means certain ideas here may work for you, whereas others may not; take inventory, and see if you can encourage positive changes that work for you. When in doubt, you can always work with a dietitian or nutritionist to come up with a more concrete plan.
Use the Four Ps of Stress Eating
Hayim goes over this specific approach in her Fork the Noise program, teaching what she calls the 4P Action Plan. Here's the gist.
- Pause. Take a second to identify the type of hunger you're experiencing.
- Pry. Reflect, and learn what specific emotion is trying to come up. Fear? Frustration? Anger? Sadness? Rejection? Loneliness? Anxiety?
- Pick. This is about choice; really deciding if eating is the best thing for you in that particular moment. ("It may be, or there may be a different self-soothing skill available for you," she says.)
- Persevere. Whatever that choice was, move on — even if you chose to eat or snack. (Soto has similar sentiments: "Enjoy the food and move on.")
This simple approach might be all you need to break the cycle of stress eating. If you need more, the experts offer additional guidance.
Take a Deep Breath, and Ask Questions
"When you find yourself reaching for food, check-in with yourself (sticky notes on the fridge work great here) and ask: 'Is this my body wanting food? Is this my cortisol demanding food? Is this food just here, and I have nothing else to do?'" says Mastela. If you can answer those questions honestly and respond to them in a constructive (notice "constructive" and not "healthy") way — even just 10 percent of the time — that's amazing, she says. (Meaning, you may realize that you're craving sweets because of stress; a "healthy" reaction may be to stifle the craving, since your body may not necessarily "need" the food, whereas a "constructive" reaction may be to go ahead and have something sweet if you think it'll make you feel better and noticing whether it does or not.) "After a few weeks of practice, 10 percent will become 20, then 30, and so on," she says. Over time, this can help you judge the difference between stress eating and other cravings, and figure out the best way to handle them that works for you.
Sometimes, if you take a second to really ask your body what it wants, it might surprise you — that fresh peach might sound a lot better than the package of cookies you're about to open. "Before you reach for a sugary snack, take a few deep breaths, tune into your body, and ask it what it needs right now," says Serena Poon, a certified nutritionist, certified health coach, Reiki master, and founder of Culinary Alchemy (a combination of education, integrative and functional nutrition, and healing energy). "Chances are, it's looking for love and nourishment from wholesome foods."
Relinquish a little of the judgment on yourself. "Grilling yourself about your food choices and feeling guilty when you lean into them is not healthy, and just causes more stress," says Mastela. "You're human, and anyone who never ever stress eats or boredom eats is [probably] lying."
This is a matter of actively choosing an indulgent, comforting food, versus eating something impulsively. "The awareness and calm sense of control is key here — it really makes all the difference," she says. Think: Calmly saying to yourself, "Yep, I'm going to bake a few cookies and eat them in the bath, and it will make me feel better," versus the aftermath of "Oh god, what did I do? I hate myself for that," while standing over the sink after eating an entire box of cookies you don't even really like that much.
"There's a big difference," she explains. "But even if you do do the standing-over-the-sink-with-hate-cookies (which, again, we've all done, even food professionals!), being able to calmly and confidently say, 'Hey, not my finest moment, but that's fine, I'll try again next time,' is really, really impactful. Be stressed, do what you feel is right in the moment, but really try to avoid shaming yourself for something you did under stress, especially when you can't go back and change it. Look forward!"
Improve Your Relationship with Food
So, stress eating isn't necessarily a bad thing, but how can you eat more intuitively, in a way that nourishes your body, mind, and spirit? This comes down to how you treat food, and the role it plays in your life.
"If you're able to have a better relationship with food, you realize that things that you deem as 'bad' or 'addictive' just become food," says Soto. "They lose their allure, and you make way for a balanced relationship with food," she explains. (See: I Took a Course to Heal My Relationship with Food and Discovered More Than I Imagined)
The ultimate tip: "Never feeling shame or stress around choosing the food is key," says Soto. If you can do that, "you'll notice that with each stressful situation, you will pick what you need at any given moment in time."
One powerful way to improve your relationship with food is to practice mindful eating — basically, the practice of slowing down and noticing your emotions and hunger so you eat when you're hungry and taste the food in your mouth. Mindfully cooking can also help you heal your relationship with food. "If you're feeling a lot of stress, try cooking foods with the intention of calmness and grounding," says Poon. "You could also infuse your food with the intention of success overcoming whatever is causing you stress." (It might sound a little woo woo, but don't knock it 'til you try it.)
Find a Simple Distraction
"With both boredom and stress, the best thing you can do to avoid eating for the wrong reasons is to get a change of scenery, says Mastela. Get some fresh air, go for a walk, do something different, read a book.
"If I'm feeling like I'm about to eat for the wrong reasons, I paint a clear coat on my nails because painting your nails is actually quite calming and can distract you from a stressor, while [simultaneously] giving you something specific to do so you're not bored, and your nails will be wet, making it harder to eat (unless you're going for the greasy chips-stuck-in-polish look)," she says.
When Stress Eating Becomes Problematic
If you're noticing that stress eating is beginning to have a negative effect on your life (monopolizing your thoughts, draining your energy, worsening your health), there are things you can do to target the root cause — the stress itself — so that you're less inclined to stress eat.
"Developing a mindfulness practice can also help you manage stress eating when it arises," says Poon. "I recommend taking time to learn breathing exercises, grounding work, or movements that can help you ease stress when life is relatively normal. That way, when you do experience times of high stress you will then have the tools to relax and re-center, rather than allowing your body to go into a panicked response."
She strongly recommends that you get lots of deep, restorative sleep to mitigate the body's stress response. "Do your best to get a lot of sleep during periods of high stress," she says. "Again, a lack of sleep can exacerbate the body's stress response. I understand that this can be difficult, but even just an extra hour of rest can make a huge difference in how you feel, and eat, during periods of high stress."
Remember that this won't happen overnight. "Learning to address stress in ways that will support your health and nourish your body is a journey," says Poon. Show yourself some patience and self-love and try several different techniques to see what works for you. (More here: How to Reduce Stress, According to Experts)
When Is It Time to Get Professional Help for Stress Eating?
Worried that your "stress eating" might be verging on disordered eating? It might be hard to tell because disordered eating might seem "normal" by society's standards, and this self-awareness is not as common as it should be, says Mastela. (See: How to Tell When Binge Eating Gets Out of Control)
There are many factors to consider when trying to determine what you're dealing with, including the type of stress. "For example, someone who just lost a loved one is a very different, specific case compared to someone who was sexually abused, which is different from someone under stress at work, which is different from someone with clinical depression," she says. "Every person is unique, every stressor is unique, so putting your stress response into a bucket and saying 'you need help when _____' isn't how I personally treat patients."
She notes that, if you're concerned, one of the best things you can do is go to a "credentialed registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders." (Find one here.) "There are no negative effects of talking to a registered dietitian or a therapist — so, if you're on the fence or unsure if it's a problem, there is no harm just talking to a therapist about it, and nipping it in the bud," says Mastela. (Take note that any other nutrition 'expert' or professional' that's not an R.D. or therapist can do serious, long-term harm when it comes to eating disorders, so finding the right person is key, she says.)
There is one a general rule of thumb Mastela uses; she advises seeking help if any of the following instances apply to you:
- You avoid social situations or act differently socially because of food.
- You think shameful or stressful or consuming thoughts about food more than two to three times per day.
- You are purging in any way (laxatives, vomiting).
- You are not eating or ignoring hunger more than once per week.
- You eat to the point of pain or discomfort more than one to three times per week.
- You feel distressed or have shame around your eating more than one to three times per week.
- You feel that you do not have control over your eating.
And Remember: Stress Eating Is Normal
"It's important to understand that stress eating is totally normal," says Poon (and every other expert here, for that matter). "Everyone experiences stress — and in moderation, it has actually been shown to help us be more productive."
Think of stress eating as a check-engine light of sorts — a clue that you have some stress to address. "I like to think about using stress eating as an opportunity to examine my clients' stress levels and help them find tools that work for them to manage their experience of stress," says Poon. "If you're able to identify, disconnect from and ease stress when it arises, your stress eating response will likely decrease or even completely dissipate."
TL;DR — get to the root of the stress, work on that, and enjoy the food. *insert shaka emoji*