Stress Eating? Why It’s Normal & How to Respond

Do you consider yourself a stress eater? When life is overwhelming, do you turn to food? Here’s why it’s normal and how to respond.


The Physical Impact of Stress 

First of all: Stress eating is NOT your weakness. It’s your biology. 

Do you feel bad for craving fatty foods when you feel stressed? Do you wish you just had more willpower to say “no” to sweets when stressed? 

Examining the physical impact of stress can help you understand that this response is actually quite normal.

Chronic stress is associated with an increase in the hormone, cortisol. High cortisol levels increase appetite. Furthermore, cortisol can increase specific cravings for high-fat and sugary foods. This explains why you crave donuts/pizza versus fruits/vegetables when stressed. 

Although you can’t stop the cascade of cortisol once triggered, you CAN reduce your exposure to stressors and expand your coping mechanisms. 

How to Respond in 3 Steps

1 – Identify the stressor. 

When you catch yourself stress eating, pause and reflect. Ask yourself: 

  • Where is this stress coming from? 
  • How long have I been feeling this? 
  • What is the level of intensity on a scale of 1-10? 

Answering these questions will help you become more aware of your body and trace your stress response back to a particular trigger. It’s like you’re pulling a weed up from the root versus trimming the leaves.

2 – Distinguish between solvable & unsolvable stressors. 

Next, determine how you will address the stressor. Is it something you can control? Or is it out of your control? 

Solvable stressor examples:  If a deadline is stressing you out, could you propose an alternative timeline? Or if your weekend feels overwhelming, could you reschedule one of the activities on your schedule? Come up with a concrete action plan for dealing with solvable stressors.

Unsolvable stressor examples: Other times, the stressor is out of your control. Things like the weather, traffic, or worrying about something that hasn’t even happened. In these cases, non-food coping tools are extremely helpful.

3 – Choose at least one non-food coping tool.

Yes, you can enjoy food as a way to cope with stress. You don’t need to justify that. However, if you feel like food is your ONLY coping skill and stress eating is getting in the way of your health goals, consider non-food coping strategies. 

Make a list of all the ways that you can take care of yourself that don’t include food. Include your hobbies, interests, or whatever you find relaxing. Your list will be unique to you, but here are some ideas: 

  • Call a friend. 
  • Meditate. 
  • Go for a walk. 
  • Take a yoga class. 
  • Read for entertainment. 
  • Do a face mask. 
  • Take a hot shower. 
  • Do a body scan.
  • Ask for help.
  • Listen to an upbeat playlist.

The goal is NOT to take away food as a coping mechanism. It IS to give yourself an abundance of positive outlets for coping with stress. 

Related Article: 24 Self-Care Ideas for Spring

The Best Foods to Eat When Stressed 

No single food can combat stress, but you can implement gentle nutrition principles to nourish your body during stressful times. 

Include a variety of foods containing the KEY macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) and micronutrients to support your immune system. 

  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Include foods high in omega 3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation caused by cortisol. Options include walnuts, flaxseed, chia seed, salmon, tuna, and avocados. 
  • Vitamin B. Vitamin B 12 can help with the metabolism of cortisol. Obtain vitamin B through beef, chicken, eggs, fortified cereals, and nutritional yeast.  
  • Magnesium. Magnesium is also beneficial for the metabolism of cortisol. Include avocados, broccoli, bananas, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and spinach for magnesium-rich foods! 

The bottom line: The LAST thing you want to do is begin a low-calorie diet. Low-calorie dieting increases cortisol (1). Focus on NOURISHING your body, not punishing it by restricting calories.



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