10 Ways to Stop Stress Eating

Chris Park , On June 30, 2020


If you find yourself reaching for a high calorie or sugary snack when feeling stressed, you are not alone. Too much stress can do a number of things to your body and may cause you to make poor food choices even when you don’t feel hungry. But do not worry, you can kick your habit and regain control of your diet. Below are some science backed tips that can help you keep stress eating in check. Here are ten tips backed by science to help you put a lid on stress eating so you don’t reach for that sugary treat:

Stress eating is a response to negative emotion caused from uncomfortable situations due to work, relationship conflicts, finances, or health problems.

Picture of a food diary being used to track days and calories

Emotional eating can be caused by prolonged levels of stress.

How Stress Affects Your Diet

When stress occurs, a series of hormonal responses follow that result in a release of adrenaline, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sharpened senses to ready quick action. In addition, cortisol works to release stored sugars and fats for immediate energy. (1) This reaction is necessary in certain stressful situations, but may not be ideal if continued over long periods of time.

When poorly managed, stress can lead to a series of health concerns and has been linked to poor sleep, weight gain, heart disease, weakened immunity and chronic pain (2). In addition, the hormonal responses associated with stress can negatively affect your diet by contributing to:

  • Increased food cravings
  • Physical hunger
  • Poor eating habits
  • Emotional eating

If you’re finding it difficult to lose weight or stick to your diet, you might want to consider taking a look at your stress levels.

How to Stop Stress Eating

While learning to manage your stress here are a few things to keep in mind for the next time that you’re feeling stressed and turn to food:

1. Practice Mindful Eating

Stress often leads to mindless eating, which for a lot of people means grabbing whats closes – and it may very well be a family sized bag of chips. And if you are mindlessly munching, you probably aren’t even savoring the food you’re eating. Being conscious of this can help you become recognize this pattern as you are indulging and you can consciously catching yourself in the moment.
It’s okay to splurge every now and then, but taking time to actually enjoy and experience your food may help you splurge a little less, or at least cut down on the amount you eat. Mindful eating is the practice of eating with purpose and it has been linked to improved calorie control, decreased cravings, and improved willpower – all of which are negatively impacted by stress (3).

2. Think Positive

A little bit of doom and gloom is normal. Learn to feel it, sit with it and then move on. It may sound silly, but if you knew the power of your thoughts you may never want to think negatively again. Work on flipping your mindset from “poor me, everything is going wrong”, to something more motivating and forward thinking. Remember everything changes, even the bad things, so whatever it is that has you down, it’s usually temporary.
Research suggests visual and verbal positivity can significantly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety (4). When you are feeling worried or anxious, instead of turning to food, take a few moments and try visualizing a more positive outcome and repeat positive affirmations to yourself. Think about what steps you can take to change the circumstance, or what good comes next.
You can also channel more positive thinking by turning to something that makes you happy. You can screen shot a funny meme on your phone or have a favorite song playlist that is your go-to. When times get tough, consider keeping this positive association close by to remind yourself to think happier thoughts.

3. Keep a Food Diary

Similar to eating more mindfully, paying attention to what you are eating each day by keeping a log. This brings more awareness and control back to your diet. Plus tracking your food intake is strongly associated with better calorie control and weight loss (5).
Use a food tracking app to hold yourself accountable, and make a point to track everything – even stress snacking and treats! You will learn a lot about your habits and get a better handle on how to change them. Plus tracking forces you to measure your portions.
In addition, you can also journal your emotions along with your food intake. This will help you see exactly how your mood and stress are impacting your eating. Recognize the patterns the that are throwing you of course and explore ways to stop them in their tracks by planning ahead.

4. Get Some Exercise

Stress releases fuel from stored carbs and fats, so what better way to combat this reaction than to use the energy? Exercise can not only utilize excess nutrients that are released, but can also help calm your overall stress response and release more feel-good hormones like endorphins.
In one study, those who exercised regularly were 78% less likely to feel stressed (6). And growing research suggests that these positive effects on stress are also translated into reductions in emotional eating. In other words, being physically active may help you kick the habit of stress eating altogether (7).
Can’t get to the gym? You can still get some endorphins going just by taking a walk around the block. Step outside and power walk it out.

5. Avoid Temptation

If you know that you are prone to stress eating, don’t keep a bowl of candy within arm’s reach. Just being visually exposed to food can trigger unhealthy eating (8). So keep the snacks out of sight and out of mind.
You can also plan ahead with healthier snack options you enjoy eating. Find some favorite low-calorie snacks that satisfy your cravings and keep them on hand for when you need them.

6. Don’t Deprive Yourself

Another important factor in avoiding temptation and cravings is to not be too restrictive on your diet. Cutting calories and trying to stick to a certain diet can drain a lot of your willpower, and when a little bit of stress comes into play you might not have anything left to hold back.
Instead of going into your healthy eating routine with an all-or-nothing mindset, give yourself a bit more wiggle room and learn how to include a bit more balance.

    The Do’s:
  • Work on a more positive relationship with food
  • Aim to eat well 80% of the time
  • Plan ahead for cheat meals or splurges
  • Track all of your food intake to make sure you are sticking to your goals most of the time
  • Eat enough to fuel your body, keep you energized, and balance your mood
  • The Dont’s:
  • Don’t cut calories below 80% of your daily calorie needs
  • Allow yourself to get too hungry
  • Don’t restrict all of your favorite foods or cut out entire food groups
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you slip up or go off your diet

7. Enlist Support

Sometimes you just need to vent or be around people who make you feel really good. We all have that person we turn to when stuff hits the fan. Enlist support that will help get you out of your zone by distracting you with something else or just by being a lending ear to hear you out.
You might even want to consider an accountability buddy that is working on their eating habits too. Sometimes going through change with someone else not only makes it feel easier, but can help you stick to your goals and influence you to make better choices (9).

8. Establish a Regiment

It’s easy to make changes for a couple days, the hard work lies in consistency. This is also how you get results, by being consistent – repeating the same behaviors for an extended period of time.
Often times we talk about consistency as it relates to calorie control, but it can also mean systematizing your diet by establishing routines and habits that help you to be more successful. If you’re meal prepping and eating around the same times every day, food becomes less of a hassle and eating well becomes nearly automatic.
Establishing a routine also means you’re less likely to find yourself without healthy options when hunger hits, or to mindlessly snack all day since you didn’t plan your meals out well. In one study, those who ate similar foods each day around the same time were able to stick to their diet better and ended up losing more weight (10). Learning to meal prep or using a meal delivery company like Trifecta that help takes a lot of the work out of dieting can be a lifesaver when it comes to stress eating by decreasing variability and opportunities for poor eating habits.

9. Get Some Sleep

Lack of sleep and stress tend to go hand in hand, and when one is lacking, it can make the other worse.
Continued stress means you’re on high alert for an extended period of time. Not only is this mentally exhausting, but also physically. Sleep is crucial to help restore your system and give your body and mind a break. You may even need more sleep than normal when you’re stressed (11).
In addition, poor sleep is associated with poor appetite control, increased cravings and irritability, all of which contribute to the same negative effects stress has on your diet (12).
Aim to get at least seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep a night. Or consider adding in naps!

10. Take a Break

When stress becomes overwhelming, find a way to just walk away from the situation. This could be as simple as stepping outside to get some fresh air or closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. Taking a break can do wonders to help you reset.
For even more benefits, try meditation or yoga. Research suggests yoga is associated with decreased stress, increased fat loss, and improved mood, and may also help reduce cravings and poor food choices (13,14,15).

Building Healthy Habits

Staying on track with healthy eating is a great way to help counteract stress, but sticking to a diet can also feel stressful in the first place. If you’re finding it hard to juggle your day to day with planning nutritious meals and snacks, meal delivery might be the solution you need.
Get a team of expert nutritionists and chefs to plan, prep, cook, and ship all of your food right to your door. All you need to do is eat it. Want to learn more?

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11,12,13,14,15.

Chris Park

Chris Park is a board-certified sports nutritionist, registered dietitian and former college rugby player. Chris loves strength training and pushing his body to the limit, which comes in handy when working with professional athletes and designing their nutritional needs. Chris also enjoys helping others by writing about nutrition.