How To Deal With Stress Eating
If youd like to know how to control stress eating, you need to understand what your trigger foods are, why you stress eat, then identify alternatives.
Heres the process we walk people through in the Noom Weight program.
Pro tip: bookmark, print, or screenshot the section below and come back to it as often as you need.
Alternatives To Stress Eating
If you want to know how to deal with stress without eating, there are plenty of things you can do instead:
- Do 5-10 minutes yoga : Connecting with yourself and your body dampens the need for outside sources of comfort.
- Walk or run outside: Sunlight instantly reduces stress and gives us a different form of energywith no calories. It doesnt matter if its just a walk around the block or a full 5k, any time outside is helpful.
- Connect with family and friends: Were wired for human contact and most of us dont get enough. When youre feeling stressed, pick up the phone and call someone who cares about you.
- Try a puzzle, boardgame, knitting, or anything creative: It may not give you the buzz of a candy bar but these activities lower cortisol and bring about feelings of peace.
- Dance and sing to your favorite songs: Music and dance are perhaps the best mood-lifters out there.
- Take a bath: If you make the time, a hot bath can really help ground and relax you.
- Journal: Write down how youre feeling. Getting it down on paper can bring genuine relief.
At the end of the day, anything that brings you joy or helps get your mind off the stress will help.
Why Stress Can Make You Overeat And How To Stop It
Stress is a normal bodily response and can be life-saving if you need a burst of speed, energy, or alertness to respond to a dangerous situation. When you get stressed, your body enters the so-called fight-or-flight mode, increasing the production of certain hormones and shutting down non-essential processes until the stressful event is over.
One of these hormones is cortisol, which suppresses appetite in the short term but can have the opposite effect if it remains chronically elevated. Chronic stress puts your body on constant alert and can lead to a multitude of complications, including overeating.
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How To Stop Emotional Eating From Stress
Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments.
As anyone whos watching their weight will tell you that hunger is just one of many reasons that people eat. Those with a tendency toward emotional eating are especially vulnerable to making poor choices.
If youre an emotional eater, you may find yourself eating to deal with uncomfortable emotions, using food as a reward when youre happy, and craving sweets or unhealthy snacks when stressed. Dont worryyoure not alone! The following ideas can help you to cut down emotional eating and develop healthier eating habits, even when you’re stressed.
Reevaluate And See How Its Going
A big part of the process of changing habits is experimenting.
After youve tried some alternatives for a few days, ask yourself:
Which alternatives worked best? Which ones didnt so much?
Do you need to swap a few out and try some new ones for a few days?
You dont have to be perfect.
If you beat yourself up, youre far more likely to overeat. When you turn to food, youre at the mercy of a basic human drive.
Focus on being kind to yourself.
Note: We know that overcoming stress eating is hard. And that just reading a blog post isnt enough. Thats why when you sign up for Noom, a 1-on-1 goal specialist can help you identify your eating habits and come up with a workable plan to help with stress eating. Learn more here.
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Types Of Appetite Problems From Anxiety
Appetite problems are never a primary symptom there must be something else linked to it. In fact, most people do not even realize they have acquired slight changes to their diet. Instead, they believe they are just eating differently while under periods of stress and/or anxiety – or they may not notice at all.
There are multiple appetite changes that can take place, but the most common include:
- Eating More – Some people experience a greater appetite when they have anxiety.
- Eating Less – Others experience much less hunger and thirst with anxiety.
Appetite should not be confused with digestion or any associated issues with it. Anxiety can cause digestion issues, but these are usually instigated by causes other than eating more or less.
Stress Eating Can Ruin Your Weight Loss Goals The Key Is To Find Ways To Relieve Stress Without Overeating
There is much truth behind the phrase “stress eating.” Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating. Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine . Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists, it’s a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position cortisol may stay elevated.
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Stress And Eating Behavior
The term stress refers to processes involving perception, appraisal, and response to noxious events or stimuli . Stress experiences can be emotionally or physiologically challenging. In addition, regular and binge use of addictive substances may serve as pharmacological stressors. Acute stress activates adaptive responses, but prolonged stress leads to wear-and-tear of the regulatory systems, resulting in biological alterations that weaken stress-related adaptive processes and increase disease susceptibility . Thus, mildly challenging stimuli limited in duration can be good stress or eustress and may increase motivation to achieve goal-direct outcomes and homeostasis this can result in a sense of mastery and accomplishment, and can be perceived as positive and exciting . However, the more prolonged and more intense the stressful situation, the lower the sense of mastery and adaptability and thus the greater the stress response and risk for persistent homeostatic dysregulation . The perception and appraisal of stress relies on specific aspects of the presenting external or internal stimuli and may be moderated or mediated by personality traits, emotional state, and physiological responses that together contribute to the experience of distress.
Why Anxiety Makes Some People Eat More
Some individuals seem to always go straight to food whenever stressed. While its not absolutely clear what causes this phenomenon, the reason for eating is well known. For some, eating is associated with feelings of comfort and overall good well-being. This is associated with a flood of positive neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that initiate warmth and overall pleasure. When a person eats, their brains release dopamine, and they feel better.
Eating food then serves as a coping mechanism so whenever the individual becomes stressed, they are usually followed by feelings of hunger. As these two urges become paired, then you start training themselves to believe that eating will alleviate symptoms of stress. Eventually, your body connects eating with solving stress and/or anxiety. Often times, the conditioned feeling continues even if you are not hungry.
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Potential Role Of Insulin
Animal models have demonstrated that GCs act directly in a feed-forward manner that promotes food-associated drives and CRF and ACTH secretion. For example, adrenalectomized rats demonstrate reduced food intake, while GC administration increases food intake by stimulating the release of NPY and inhibiting CRF release , . However, these effects do not appear to increase feeding-motivated behaviors under all conditions. Adrenalectomy reduces chow intake, while subsequent corticosterone replacement normalizes it however, high corticosterone levels neither stimulate nor reduce chow intake . When rats were made diabetic using streptozotocin , a marked, dose-dependent effect of corticosterone on intake of rat chow was noted . Together, these findings suggest that insulin secretion, also stimulated dose-dependently by GCs, partially blocks chow intake stimulated by corticosteroids.
Why Do People Stress Eat
Some research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking. And a Finnish study that included over 5,000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men.
Harvard researchers have reported that stress from work and other sorts of problems correlates with weight gain, but only in those who were overweight at the beginning of the study period. One theory is that overweight people have elevated insulin levels, and stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in the presence of high insulin.
How much cortisol people produce in response to stress may also factor into the stressweight gain equation. In 2007, British researchers designed an ingenious study that showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels in an experimental setting were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low-cortisol responders.
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So Why Do We Choose Bad Foods When Stressed
Being time-poor is a big factor in choosing unhealthy foods when were stressed, Assoc. Prof. Torres says. We have busy jobs and lives, and often not enough time. When this happens, we often seek out fast, convenient options such as takeaway. Research has also shown people tend to eat more when they are stressed, leading to the consumption of foods with higher kilojoules but with not a lot of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
However, not all stress is the same, and we can respond differently to different types of stress. What we eat and when we eat does have a lot to do with the type of stress were experiencing, Assoc. Prof. Torres says. Research has shown that chronic daily stress releases cortisol, and in studies this has been linked to increasing our appetite or drive for sweet, fatty foods.
For example, students studying during the exam period or workers feeling under pressure in their jobs tend to crave bad foods. But when someone experiences extreme or traumatic stress, such as a death in the family, this different kind of stress tends to suppress appetite.
‘Research has shown that chronic daily stress releases cortisol, and in studies this has been linked to increasing our appetite or drive for sweet, fatty foods.’
Assoc. Prof. Susan Torres,
Physical Impact Of Stress
There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:
- High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If the stress does not let up, another hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.
- Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.
It is very easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. But there are characteristics that distinguish them.
Recognizing these subtle differences is the first step towards helping to stop emotional eating patterns.
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How To Stop Stress Eating At Night
If youre stressed during the day, did you know that your hormones can drive you to the kitchen at night?
A recent study showed that daytime stress fuels the production of ghrelin at night. So reducing stress at work is important.
Were also more likely to overeat at night time, just because were in close proximity to the kitchen and were less busy with the tasks of the day.
If you stress eat at night, it helps to reduce temptation at home.
If the food is there, youll probably eat it. Make sure youre stocked up with healthy snacks, or stop eating after dinner.
Theres no need to eat any more after your last meal of the day, and studies show that its actually beneficial for many people to fast for at least 14 hours overnight.
And if you do get the urge to snack in the evening, try having pre-portioned snacks in your cupboard that will satisfy your urge without leading you to overeat.
Use The Four Ps Of Stress Eating
Hayim goes over this specific approach in her Fork the Noise program, teaching what she calls the 4P Action Plan. Here’s the gist.
- Pause. Take a second to identify the type of hunger you’re experiencing.
- Pry. Reflect, and learn what specific emotion is trying to come up. Fear? Frustration? Anger? Sadness? Rejection? Loneliness? Anxiety?
- Pick. This is about choice really deciding if eating is the best thing for you in that particular moment.
- Persevere. Whatever that choice was, move on even if you chose to eat or snack.
This simple approach might be all you need to break the cycle of stress eating. If you need more, the experts offer additional guidance.
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Find Alternatives To Eating
What makes you happy?
Whats something thats doable and realistic that you could do the next time you feel stressed?
Noom activity: Take a look at our stress-eating alternatives section below and pick 3-5 that feel right to you .
Write them down on a piece of paper or a post-it .
Then when you start to reach for those licorice twists, take a look at your alternatives, pick one, and try it.
You can find the happy chemicals you get from comfort food from a healthier and more sustainable source.
Why Do We Stress Eat
Psychological factors naturally play an important role in why we stress eat. Many people eat when theyre stressed to help provide temporary relief from unpleasant emotions. After all, when we eat something we love, it can spark feel-good hormones called endorphins.
For some, food can help fill an emotional void because it provides a guarantee. When we eat comfort foods, we know what flavors, textures, and feelings to expect while we eat it. This may be a pleasant contrast to the uncontrollable factors that cause daily stress.
However, when stress-eating becomes a regular occurrence, there may also be other hormones influencing our eating behavior.
During stress, the brain responds with a series of mechanisms designed to help the body return to its pre-stress state. The HPA axis is the primary operator of the brains response to stress. Specifically, the HPA axis connects the brain to the liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands which are collectively known as the endocrine system. When a stressful event occurs, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol.
Normally, cortisol levels fluctuate with a steady decline throughout the day. Cortisol helps boost the bodys daily supply of energy by mustering glucose and fatty acids from the liver. However, cortisol levels spike when a stressful or threatening event occurs to supply extra energy for dealing with the stressor.
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Are There Feelings Of Regret Or Guilt After Emotional Eating
Giving in to a craving, or eating because of stress can cause feelings of regret, shame, or guilt. These responses tend to be associated with emotional hunger.
On the other hand, satisfying a physical hunger is giving the body the nutrients or calories it needs to function and is not associated with negative feelings.
How To Stop Stress Eating At Work
If you stress eat at work, the following tips can help:
Start the day with a full stomach
Have a substantial breakfast that keeps you full until lunch. It doesnt take much time to make porridge with fruit and nuts, or scrambled eggs with chopped vegetables.
Research shows that eating most of your calories at breakfast keeps snacking at a minimum for the rest of the day.
Eat plenty of protein and good fats
Protein and good fats keeps blood sugar levels steady over the course of a day.
Because blood sugar dips can contribute to anxiety and depression, that not only means that you stay feeling fuller for longer, but you actually feel less stressed too. Thats what we at Noom call a win/win.
Take regular breaks
That means stepping away from your desk, getting some sunlight, and moving your body.
Spend more time outside
One Noomer realized that meetings were a major source of stress. So she talked to her boss and they started having their 1-to-1 meetings outside while taking a walk.
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How To Avoid Eating When Stressed
- Face the problem head-on: address what is making you stressed rather than distracting yourself with food.
- Make plans with friends: comfort foods have been shown to decrease feelings of loneliness, so surrounding yourself with friends could help fight cravings.
- Do something that relaxes you: go for a walk, take a bath, or meditate for 10 minutes to reduce stress and allow cravings to pass.
- If you must indulge: accept your stress and allow yourself to savor one small treat rather than lose control and eat large amounts.