If you’re looking for ways to stop stress eating, you’ve come to the right place. We reached out to a bunch of nutritionists, most of whom are registered dietitians, and asked them one burning question: How to stop stress eating? We got answers from fourteen of them.
Stress eating is when you eat in response to stress, not because you’re actually hungry. It’s all about seeking comfort through food. Stress eaters often opt for fatty and sugary foods because these types of foods tend to provide a sense of comfort. Plus, they tend to overeat.
Stress eating can take a toll on your body. Research suggests that chronic life stress may be causally linked to weight gain, and stress eating may contribute to the development of obesity. So, if you tend to eat when stress strikes, it’s crucial to learn how to stop stress eating.
Table of Contents
- How to Stop Stress Eating
- Jennifer Hanes, MS, RDN, LD
- Sylvia Klinger, DBA, RDN, LDN, CPT
- Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Jenny Fowler
- Caroline Lacey, RD, LDN
- Lauren Sharpe, RD
- Shelley Rael, MS, RDN, LD
- Andy De Santis, MPH, RD
- Rachel Nannola, MS, RDN, LD
- Jinan Banna, PhD, RD
- Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES
- Jana Mowrer, MPH, RDN
- Kelly Page
- Luke Corey, RD
- Closing Remarks
How to Stop Stress Eating
Here’s what the 14 nutritionists have to say on how to stop stress eating.
Jennifer Hanes, MS, RDN, LD
Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Go You! Nutrition Counseling. Her special interest is in vegetarian nutrition and psychiatric nutrition. She holds a master’s degree in dietetics from Eastern Michigan University. She is also a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Behavior Health Dietetic Practice Group and the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research.
I would recommend assessing how often stress or emotional eating is happening. It’s completely normal to do this on occasion. However, when it is done as a reaction to every stressor that comes your way it can become unhealthy for a few questions.
Generally, stress eating is done with foods that are less healthful in large amounts. Additionally, when we continually stress eating (or emotionally eat) we are covering our problems, worries, concerns, etc., rather than dealing with them. All this does is compound our feelings of stress and anxiety without doing anything to address the problem.
I often advise my clients to first recognize when they’re reaching for food out of stress, boredom, or emotions, instead of hunger. Oftentimes, they are unable to do this when I first start seeing them. Just take a few seconds and realize why they are choosing to eat. After they are comfortable with identifying hunger vs. stress cues, we discuss management techniques.
Can I do something about this stress right away? This isn’t always possible. If they can manage the emotion at that time, do it! Go for a walk to cool off, take some time to meditate, or watch a funny video. Many of my clients are seeing therapists, so I ask them to utilize coping mechanisms they have been discussing with them. Personally, I’m a huge fan of an outdoor walk, when feasible, particularly in a pretty park.
If you can’t address the situation at this time, make a mental note to address it later. But oftentimes, as people are starting to work through this process, they will pick up a feel-good snack at this time. I remind them that this does not mean they are weak or a bad person. They are using a technique they are comfortable with until they can address the problem more effectively at a later time. But, they need to come back and resolve it. Otherwise, they’re stuck in a loop of hiding emotions/stress with food and we are back in that unhealthy category.
We have to remember that most cultures have traditions of using food to celebrate or work through emotions. Think cake for birthdays, weddings, or graduation. Dinners and drinks for a promotion. Neighbors bringing casseroles over to families who have experienced loss or had a baby. We should honor this need we have as people and realize that it is a normal part of being a person and not a terrible thing.
However, in each of those situations, we also move forward and address the situation. We celebrate a promotion, then go do an awesome job. We have a super fun wedding reception, but then settle into a more normalized living and eating pattern. After the death of a loved one, we grieve and process our loss. And so on. Learning that occasional stress eating is normal often takes away the guilt, which helps end the cycle of stress eating.
Sylvia Klinger, DBA, RDN, LDN, CPT
Sylvia is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of Hispanic Food Communications, a nutrition communications and culinary consulting company. She has been affiliated with various nutrition professional associations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She has also received several awards, including the Outstanding Dietitian of 2009 awarded by the Illinois Dietetic Association – West Suburban Chapter.
My weight loss journey really started when I went back to graduate school. The amount of school work, along with my consulting business, just didn’t allow me (or perhaps I didn’t prioritize well) to get my daily 1 to 2 hours of exercise, while daily stress was leading to periodic storm eating. I saw my weight slowly creep up and up when finally, in May 2020, I decided to do something about it. I love to eat, cook, and use my energy, so I knew trying to go on a drastic diet was not going to work.
Here are the top tools I’ve found most effective while safely losing over 15 “pandemic pounds” since May 12, 2020:
- Seek help from a psychologist. I used a virtual system to help me deal with my stress eating. This led me to solutions including guided meditation and exercise for stressful times, along with starting new hobbies (photography and learning Italian) to help me think less about food.
- Record food/beverage intake every single day.
- Exercise most days of the week for a minimum of 60 minutes. I created a mini gym in my basement but made good use of any gorgeous day to get out for a couple of hours.
- Limit or ditch the caffeine. Anything that was giving me more anxiety, which resulted in more eating, had to go, and caffeine was at the top of my list.
- No foods are off-limits―Nothing! However, desserts or indulgences should consist of mini pieces of lower-calorie options and you should share larger entrees, meals, appetizers, desserts, etc.
- Create a peaceful ambiance around food and have family meals most days.
- Find a comfortable calorie level, but know that there is a range and that every day should not be the same.
- Drink plenty of water or low-calorie beverages.
- Include lots of high-fiber foods at every meal―fruits and/or vegetables and a grain serving.
- Learn to say “no, thank you” without guilt.
Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
Lisa is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Sound Bites Nutrition. She has taught as an adjunct instructor to undergraduate nutrition and nursing students at the University of Cincinnati for almost 19 years. She is also an active writer and has published two cookbooks. She has received several awards, including the Ohio Recognized Dietitian of the Year in 2017.
I often ask my clients that admit to being stress eaters, ”What’s eating you that’s making you eat?”
Stress eating is common in both men and women and has been on the rise since the pandemic. A survey of 800 adults published in Nutrients reviewed emotional eating and food choice motives such as mood, health, convenience, natural content, cost, weight control, familiarity, and ethical concerns during the pandemic.
They found that moderate to severe stress was experienced by the majority of respondents (over 73%). Emotional eating was significantly associated with perceived stress, with nearly half of the food choice motives being a reason for stress eating. But there is hope.
Here are 5 tips to stop stress eating:
- Keep a journal. Jot down your food and mood and make the connection between hunger and habit. Recognize what triggers you to stress eat. Is it boredom, anxiety, fatigue, anger, or something else?
- Stop dieting. Chronic calorie deprivation is stressful in and of itself. Eat at regular intervals of 3 to 5 hours and include high-fiber and high-protein foods to regulate appetite and energy. These include eggs with whole-grain toast, Greek yogurt with fruit or peanut butter, or beans and brown rice.
- Reduce alcohol and processed food. While cocktails or cookies are often grabbed for comfort, they may exacerbate depression and increase the chance of stress eating.
- Get more sleep. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of solid sack time each night. Lack of sleep or chronic insomnia increases cortisol, a stress hormone that’s linked with increased cravings for sweets.
- Do a good deed. Helping others will help elevate your mood and feed your soul. Finding purpose in your life improves resilience, which may help reduce stress and the eating that accompanies it.
Jenny is a certified Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) coach with First Mile Care, a preventive chronic care company in Silicon Valley. She is also a Certified Nutrition Consultant and a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.
When you experience acute, temporary stress, it suppresses your appetite temporarily. But if the stress is chronic and ongoing, it causes a release of cortisol which, in turn, affects your appetite and causes you to want to eat even if you’re not really hungry. Your body is programmed to want more food when you’re experiencing ongoing stress and high levels of adrenaline.
So, you’re feeling stressed out, and you want to eat even though you’re not especially hungry. Do you crunch on a celery stalk? Probably not. Your body wants extra glucose for quick energy to deal with the adrenaline boost. And so you automatically veer toward foods high in fat and sugar and quick carbohydrates. There’s a reason we call those “comfort foods,” as they help dampen that stress response.
You need to figure out how to calm yourself with stress-relieving activities, which aren’t the same for everyone. Typical stress-relieving activities include reading, writing/journaling, being in nature, talking to a friend, meditating/deep breathing, doing a puzzle, physical activity, music, photography, coloring, mindful eating, flower-arranging, knitting, etc. Be careful about screens and electronics, as they may engage the brain in such a way that it triggers stress or excitement.
Create a list of your top stress-busting activities. Keep your list somewhere you’ll see it, like on your fridge or mirror, and decorate it or use colored paper or stickers to make it “pop.” The next time you reach for the freezer door handle, looking for that comforting tub of ice cream, you’ll see the list of activities instead. And be sure to move the list around, so that you don’t get so accustomed to seeing it that you become blind to it.
Caroline Lacey, RD, LDN
Caroline Lacey is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the owner of Nutrition Rerooted, a telehealth-based private practice that offers nutrition coaching. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of New Hampshire, and she’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in Nutrition at Marshall University.
As a Registered Dietitian, my advice for how to stop stress eating is to learn how to cope with your emotions in effective ways rather than using food as a crutch.
It’s not uncommon for people to turn to food in times of stress; food can be soothing, distracting, and even numbing, and therefore can provide temporary relief from uncomfortable feelings. But using food to cope with stress is sometimes like putting a band-aid on a wound: it’s a short-term and ineffective solution that won’t fix the problem.
That being said, there are nuances, and food can actually be a helpful coping mechanism. Food restriction or dieting, for example, can be a source of stress. If you’re not eating enough, then food may be exactly what your body needs, and in that case, eating is a healthy coping mechanism.
Stress management is probably not the solution when the stress is a result of inadequate food intake, but eating probably is. Therefore, it’s important to identify the root cause(s) of your stress so that you can understand and address your true needs.
In any case, stress management is important to your overall health, and learning strategies and techniques for stress relief can make you better equipped to handle stress. You may benefit from working with a trained professional, and are encouraged to seek help if you need it.
Lauren Sharpe, RD
Lauren is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Lauren Sharpe Nutrition. She is also the founder of Social Media for Nutrition Professionals. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition & Dietetics from the University of Delaware.
Truthfully I think the idea that we need to stop stress eating in the first place is part of the problem. When we are told that we shouldn’t do something, it only makes us want to do it more. Stress eating isn’t inherently a bad thing, the food isn’t the problem, the problem is not addressing the emotion in the first place.
We are trying to avoid an emotion that is uncomfortable by turning food, simply because food can be a source of comfort. It is important to first gain awareness that you are feeling the emotion in the first place. Identify the emotion and allow yourself to feel that emotion rather than avoid or resist it.
From there, make a list of things that can directly deal with this emotion rather than cover it up. For example, if you’re feeling stressed out, what self-care activities can you try for 10-20 minutes that will help you to feel grounded and calm? If after you tried those activities for 15-20 minutes and you’re still feeling the desire to eat, that’s okay! The point is less to avoid it and more to allow it and get curious as to why it’s happening.
Shelley Rael, MS, RDN, LD
Shelley is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the owner of ShelleyRael.com. She has taught as an adjunct faculty at the University of New Mexico for 7 years, and she is still a part-time faculty at the Central New Mexico Community College. She has been active in various nutrition professional associations, including serving as president of the New Mexico Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (NM AND) from 2004-2005.
One of the first things I suggest is to keep the go-to foods out of the house. It is not the food that is the “problem” but the way we eat it and how much we eat when engaging in stress eating.
For example, the package of cookies, the half-gallon of ice cream, or the bag of chips? Don’t buy them in the first place to have on hand if these are the go-to foods. Let’s be honest, when we stress eat, we are rarely going for a salad or a bag of carrots.
It is okay to have a cookie or ice cream or chips, but when we are doing it while under stress, we barely even register what is happening.
If you find yourself amid emotional eating, acknowledge what is happening, and stop. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, when you find yourself gravitating to the kitchen, ask yourself a simple question: why am I doing this? Is it hunger, a specific time of day, or an emotion? You can change trajectory at any time.
Andy De Santis, MPH, RD
Andy is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and the owner of AndytheRD.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Food & Nutrition from Ryerson University and a master’s degree in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He is also an active writer and has published quite many books.
I think on some level stress is an inevitable component of daily life and so when my clients come to me with concerns in this area, it opens up a pretty broad discussion in terms of how to proceed.
Food is one of a number of tools we can use for stress management, but it isn’t the only one.
Besides the more obvious things like walks or physical activity, I’ve been increasingly intrigued by the evidence around daily meditation as a stress management technique.
There is some good evidence as well that over a prolonged period, meditation can improve digestive health due to the damage excessive stress can cause to the GI tract (think gut-brain connection).
The other thing to be aware of is that, in addition to stress, physiological hunger can drive food cravings. So, I encourage people to consider their daily consumption habits and ensure they are eating adequately throughout the day with a thought towards more satiating food components like protein and fiber.
Rachel Nannola, MS, RDN, LD
Rachel is a Registered Dietitian at Mindful Eats Nutrition Counseling. She also currently works at the Eating Recovery Center, where she works with clients with eating disorders. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from Texas State University and a master’s degree in Nutrition and Metabolism from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
If you find yourself turning to food when you’re stressed, it can mean that food has become your go-to coping skill. One way to decrease stress eating is to find other coping skills that can help you process through the stress in life (we all have it, so might as well find some ways to deal with it in a healthy way).
There are so many coping skills out there to try. A few of my favorites are journaling, reading, listening to music, or going for a walk. It can be helpful to practice these coping skills before getting too stressed out. If you wait until your stress is super high, it’s common you won’t remember to use your new coping skills at that moment and will return to food.
Jinan Banna, PhD, RD
Jinan is a Registered Dietitian and the founder of Jinan Banna LLC. She is also an Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biology from the University of California, Davis.
In terms of how to stop stress eating, a good general guideline is to eat when you feel hungry. If you follow your body’s hunger signals and pay close attention to when you are actually hungry rather than stressed, you should be able to give your body what it needs.
Before you reach for food during times of stress, take a little time to tune in and see if you actually feel hunger. If you cannot identify those feelings of hunger, see if you can engage in an alternative to eating, such as taking a short walk or calling a friend. Hopefully, these activities will allow your stress to dissipate some, and you can continue to listen to your body to see if any hunger signals are there.
Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES
Caroline Thomason is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Caroline Thomason Nutrition Consulting, LLC. She is also a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES). She helps women overcome the yo-yo dieting cycle and feel successful with nutrition.
Stress eating is a coping mechanism. It is a behavior that we do to get some relief in the moment―to escape. However, the problem is that the relief is short-lived. Many people have an intense emotional response after stress eating: shame, guilt, and regret start to set in.
To stop stress eating, we have to start introducing healthy coping mechanisms instead. This takes time to learn. I recommend noticing what time of day you stress eat, practice not reacting to stress immediately with food, and lastly, introduce a healthy coping mechanism to relieve stress. Go outside, take a few breaths, take a shower. Do anything to change your environment and break the habit!
Jana Mowrer, MPH, RDN
Jana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of HealthWins. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Clinical Nutrition from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of California, Fresno. She has served as a Legislative Ambassador for the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and she is a member of the Clovis Rotary.
How to stop stress eating?
- Breathe: In moments of high stress, having the ability to take a few deep breaths can allow our body to catch up with itself and calm down our senses to be mindful in the moment and better able to make power choices.
- Assess: Where are you, what is causing the stress, why is this situation causing stress? Being able to ask yourself these questions provides curiosity to solve problems vs. being critical with ourselves which typically leads to behaviors we feel guilt or shame around.
- Get out: Move your body into a new position and (if possible) change your environment.
Kelly is a Certified Transformational Health and Nutrition Coach and the owner of Tasting Page, where she shares information about healthy foods that can nourish and energize your body. She is also a Life Coach and Meditation Teacher.
Stress eating is often a knee-jerk reaction to something that’s happening. Because it’s usually a habitual response to something like bad news, the simple act of taking a long, slow, deep breath, can help break the ingrained pattern.
Pausing for a beat before you reach for food with a big inhale and exhale can help you recenter, get back in your body, and detach from your swirling thoughts. The break can also allow you to create some distance from the urge to eat and enable you to see if you’re really in fact hungry or just looking to self-soothe with food.
Luke Corey, RD
Luke is a Performance Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist with EXOS, and the Team Dietitian for the Minnesota Timberwolves of the NBA. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences from Queen’s University and in Nutrition from Mount Saint Vincent University.
When asked how to stop stress eating, many experts immediately recommend finding a different outlet for your stress, such as going for a walk or drinking a glass of water. This may work for some people, but it usually isn’t sustainable.
Whenever someone mentions to me that they stress eat, my initial reaction is to try to find the source of that stress. In my opinion, you will never be able to fully kick your stress eating habit if you don’t address the root of the problem.
For many people, the source of their stress can be traced back to their work environment or their home or family life. While they may not be able to change everything that is causing the stress, they may be able to make a few adjustments that help them feel better about the situation or give them some confidence that they are controlling their stress and not vice versa.
This change in mindset can be very powerful, and may ultimately help reduce the urge to eat something when stressed. If it doesn’t work, then finding other outlets may be the solution in the interim.
Most nutritionists we asked had a similar key point about stopping stress eating: try other healthy coping mechanisms to relieve your stress, like outdoor walks, meditation, exercising, or enjoying your hobbies.
The exception is when your stress stems from restrictive dieting or inadequate food intake. In such cases, turning to food as a coping mechanism is understandable. It’s crucial to identify the underlying cause of your stress and find the appropriate solution for managing stress eating.
The nutritionists also provided other helpful tips. For instance, keeping your go-to comfort foods out of your home and avoiding stress-inducing factors like alcohol can be beneficial. We hope you find this article useful, and a big thank you to everyone who contributed to this article.