What is stress?

Stress is our body’s response to pressure and when we experience stress, it can have a powerful impact, not only on our emotions, but also our behaviours and food choices too.


Lots of different situations and events can lead to stress. For example, it can be triggered when we experience something new or unexpected. Feeling stressed can trigger changes to our food habits and eating patterns.

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.

Read more about stress and how to deal with it in our expert guide, then check out our top mood-boosting recipes. Discover how to sleep better and understand the role talk therapy plays in gut health.

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 sleeping well, taking regular exercise and eating a balanced diet 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 unhealthier food choices in an attempt to find comfort and to better cope with our negative emotions.

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Unhealthy and healthy foods

Why do we turn to food?

Overeating can be driven by several factors from availability of certain foods, to boredom and depression, but the body’s physical stress response may also play a role, too. While stress may cause some people to refrain from eating for long periods, others will naturally gravitate towards food. When you're feeling stressed, your body releases cortisol (the stress hormone), which may lead to cravings for sugary, salty and fatty (i.e. highly palatable) foods as your brain tells your body to fuel up, ready to fight off a possible threat.

While the occasional food indulgence can be an enjoyable part of a balanced diet, repeatedly overeating these types of foods may be problematic because this behaviour may condition us into believing treat food is the answer to making us feel better. Pretty soon, we can find ourselves searching out these treats in response to the regular stresses in our environment.

10 tools to manage stress eating

1. Develop awareness

If you’ve ever found yourself at the end of a packet of biscuits while working at your laptop, or polishing off a packet of crisps while cooking, then you may need to work on your food awareness. Perhaps you’re someone who eats very healthily throughout the day but struggle to control portions at dinner time?

Whatever your pattern, take a few minutes to bring awareness to the times of day and situations that cause you to overeat. Using a nutrition app may help you become more aware of this. Once you have this information you can more easily put in place the tools to resolve them.

2. Don't restrict

It’s not uncommon to approach ‘healthy eating’ with an all or nothing mentality, this can result in some individuals consuming too few calories or even severely restricting their food intake. While it's never a good idea to overly restrict food intake, this is especially true during stressful episodes. Research shows that restricting calories may not only lead to overeating, but it can actually increase your stress levels further!

3. Identify your triggers

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, try removing trigger foods from your home and replace with foods you still enjoy but don’t feel out of control around. While the goal is never to ‘banish’ a certain food forever, limiting temptation can support a sense of calm and control in the short-term.

4. Lean into structure

Structure and routine are vital. Everything about your body works on a rhythm and cycle; from our sleep, to our hormones and our digestive patterns. This means adding some structure to your meal times and eating patterns can help shut off your impulse to stress-eat. For example, implementing a curfew i.e. finishing your meals for the day by 8pm can be a good strategy to curb late night snacking. 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 prevent unplanned eating.

5. Create a list of alternative activities

If you find yourself reaching for food when you are not hungry, it can be because you are seeking pleasure and comfort, not sustenance. In this instance, it’s really useful to have a list of alternative activities that may support stress release and help you feel better. Luckily, science is on our side and researchers have identified some key activities including mindfulness, meditation, exercise and connection (i.e. socialising) which create a similar response in the brain to that of junk food.

A man meditating

6. Make your food nutrient dense

While behaviour is a predominant driver in our food choice, it isn’t the only one. If we are not providing our bodies with the nutrients it requires to stay healthy, 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 fill you up and mitigate the chances of overeating.

Check out our healthy snacks for more ideas.

7. Stay hydrated

We can often mistake thirst for hunger, so drink a glass of water before you open that pack of biscuits or munch on more chocolate. Maintaining adequate levels of hydration is important for energy levels, alertness but also to manage anxiety and stress.

If you struggle to drink enough, try these delicious fruit-infused waters.

8. Be active

Moving your body can be a powerful way to manage stress, this is because activity helps reduce levels of stress hormones and produces endorphins to boost your mood. This doesn’t mean you have to do intense workouts – simply being more active works just as well. Take the stairs rather than the lift, park further away from your destination and consider mindful movement activities like yoga.

Read about the health benefits of walking.

9. Buy smaller sized snacks

Research suggests that when we buy snack foods and treats in larger pack sizes it stimulates us to eat more. If you do buy these foods, buy smaller sized packs and aim stick to the recommended portions. You could try portioning out a small bowl of crisps, for example, or have no more than two biscuits at a time.

10. Get cooking!

Eating home-cooked meals more regularly is associated with a better diet and a reduced likelihood of being overweight, it may also increase your chance of having more nourishing foods like fruit and vegetables. All of these aspects help support your mood and your ability to manage stress.

Check out these mood-boosting recipes.

Read more on stress-eating...

What is stress and how to reduce it
Stress relief: How diet and lifestyle can help
How does stress affect weight?
How to stop occasional binge-eating
10 ways to manage your appetite

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

This article was reviewed on 30 March, 2024, by Kerry Torrens.

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


All health content on goodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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