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6 tools to manage stress-eating

Everyday stress can significantly impact our emotional health and lead to overeating. Read our expert guide for advice on how to keep stress eating under control.

Stress is an interesting thing. When we experience stress, it can have a powerful impact, not only on our emotions, but also our habits and choices. One area where many of us can notice change is in our food habits and eating patterns.

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Why do we stress eat?

When we are feeling stressed, self-care is often one of the first things to go. Basic habits such as sleep, exercise and eating can quickly be put on the back burner as we divert our focus elsewhere. What’s more, when we perceive our stress as chronic or out of control, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves reaching for items like food for comfort.

*Please note: it is important to differentiate between stress eating and disordered eating. These tips are not appropriate for those who feel they may have disordered eating tendencies. For further support and information regarding eating disorders and treatments, please see the NHS eating disorders guidance.

Why do we reach for food when stressed?

Hand reaching into jar for cookie

While overeating can be driven by several factors from availability and boredom to depression, the body’s physical stress response can also play a role. While stress can cause some people to refrain from eating for long periods, others will gravitate towards food. When you’re feeling stressed, your body releases cortisol (the stress hormone), which can lead to cravings for sugary, salty and fatty (i.e. highly palatable) foods as your brain believes it requires fuel to fight whatever perceived threat is causing your feelings of stress.

While occasional food indulgence can be an enjoyable part of ones diet, repeatedly overeating can become problematic when the brain is conditioned to believe that junk food is what we need in order to feel better during stressful situations. Pretty soon, we can find ourselves repeatedly reaching for food in response to stress in our environment.

What can we do to manage stress related eating?

1. Develop awareness of your habits

Busy Businesswoman With Laptop Sitting At Desk Having Working Lunch Sandwich

If you’ve ever found yourself ‘magically’ at the end of a packet of biscuits while working at your laptop or polishing off a tub of hummus while cooking, then you may need to work on your food awareness. Are you someone who eats very healthily throughout the day, but at dinnertime you struggle to control your portions? Or maybe you’re a desktop muncher, always with a snack at your computer? No matter your pattern, spend some time trying to bring awareness to the times of day and situations that cause you to overeat. Once you create awareness around the habits that are working against you, you can more easily apply some of the tools below to help resolve them.

2. Don’t restrict

It is not uncommon to approach ‘healthy eating’ with an all or nothing mentality, which can lead some individuals to consume too few calories or become overly restrictive with their food intake. While it’s never a good idea to overly restrict food intake, this is especially true during stressful periods. Research has demonstrated that restricting calories can not only lead to overeating, but it can actually increase your stress levels!

3. Identify your trigger foods and remove temptation

Chocolate ring doughnut in drawer with stationary

Do you have a gateway food? Perhaps you struggle not to scoff every piece of chocolate in the house, yet you can happily let a packet of crisps sit on the shelf for months? Having tempting foods, especially those which are highly-palatable, within view can lead to overeating even when you aren’t hungry. If this is the case, then removing trigger foods from your environment in place of food options that you can still enjoy, but don’t feel out of control around, can be a helpful approach when trying to manage stress-eating. While the goal is never to ‘banish’ a certain food forever, limiting temptation can quickly support a sense of calm and control in the short-term.

4. Lean into structure

Structure and routine are a body’s friend. Everything about our body works on a rhythm and cycle; from our sleep, to our hormonal and our digestive patterns. As such, adding some structure to your meal times or eating patterns can be really helpful in shutting off your impulse to stress-eat. For example, implementing a curfew i.e finishing your meals for the day by 8pm can be really helpful in avoiding late night snacking in front of the TV. Equally, sticking to a schedule of eating that suits you e.g three balanced meals per day without snacks or regular meals with set snacks, can help to curb those unplanned workstation nibbles.

5. Create a list of alternative activities

Young businesswoman relaxing and meditating in office with male coworker behind

When we find ourselves reaching for food when we’re not hungry, it’s often because we are seeking pleasure and comfort, not sustenance. In this instance, it’s really useful to have a list of alternative activities that can support stress release and help you to feel better without overeating. Luckily, science is on our side and researchers have identified a few key activities including mindfulness, meditation, exercise and connection (i.e. socialising, romance etc) which create a similar response in the brain as junk food.

6. Choose nutrient dense foods

While behaviour is a predominant driver in our relationship with food, it isn’t the only one. If we are not providing our bodies with the nutrients it requires to stay healthy through a balanced diet, it can more easily lead us to stress eat highly palatable, but less nutritious foods instead. Stocking up on healthy and nutritious foods such as lean proteins, nuts, seeds and wholegrains can help to fill you up and therefore mitigate chances of overeating.

Read more on stress-eating…

Stress relief: How diet and lifestyle can help
How does stress affect weight?
How to stop occasional binge-eating

Have you experienced stress eating? Get in touch in the comments below…


This article was published on 30 March 2020.

Tracey Raye is a registered nutritionist with a master’s degree in Personalised Nutrition. She holds further qualifications in Psychology, Philosophy and life-coaching which she uses to complement her practice. View Tracey’s website at www.traceyraye.com or follow her on Instagram @traceyraye

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