How to Combat Stress Eating

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Stress often triggers emotional eating. It's distracted, mindless eating and it's utterly unsatisfying. The stress of raising children, family, work, financial worries, an argument with a coworker or friend, even holidays or planning a vacation can push us over the edge and into a bag of chips or a giant plate of mac and cheese. Unrelenting stress can make you turn to food for distraction and comfort. It can make you feel like your life is completely out of your control. All this emotional eating leaves you feeling unsatisfied and guilty. Here are some fool proof strategies that will help you gain control of your eating in stressful situations.

Take a Step Back

What's stressing you? What are you anxious about? Sometimes there's nothing you can actually do about a stress, but simply recognizing it will reduce the pressure. Just because you can't always control a situation, doesn't mean you can't control your reaction to it and your food intake. Taking a step back can help you redirect your energy and avoid the snacking that seemed so tempting a minute ago. Remember this mantra: I can't control everything in my life, but I can control what I put in my mouth.

Learn to Recognize Physical Hunger

Stress can make you eat compulsively and mindlessly. You become totally disconnected from the feeling of physical hunger and just eat when you think you're "supposed" to.  To combat this, connect with your physical hunger. Take note of how hungry you are before you eat, from 1 (not hungry) to 10 (absolutely starving). There's no point in having a snack if you're not really hungry. In fact, you may sometimes not be very hungry at mealtime. If this is the case, don't skip a meal, but eat lightly. Once you're in touch with your hunger, you're in the drivers's seat.

Find Another Comfort

There's no denying that eating can be comforting, especially in times of high-stress. Carbs in particular are soothing. When you endure chronic stress, your brain cells are bathed in the hormone cortisol, which makes you crave fatty, salty, sweet, crunchy foods. Those carbs you crave then temporarily calm you, but the good feeling wears off very quickly and soon you're craving more. And feeling bad about what you've already consumed - a vicious cycle. An excellent and very effective strategy is to find something to do that will distract you both from your stress and from the elusive comfort of food. Have a short list of a few activities that appeal to you so you'll be prepared to direct your attention elsewhere when cravings strike.


Meditation is an extremely effective way of releasing stress and deterring emotional eating. When you feel an urge to overeat, take five minutes, close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. Set the timer on your phone to keep track of the time so you can keep your eyes closed and focus entirely on breathing deeply. Research has shown that meditation, practiced regularly, can actually change your brain, and divert an impulse to eat and help strengthen your resolve. Yoga can also help with stress control, and these days it's pretty easy to find a yoga class that suits you.

Snooze to Lose

Running ragged? Your racing, stressed-out mind keep you from falling asleep at night? Stressed about then not getting enough sleep? Did it ever occur to you that sleep deprivation can boost your appetite? Oh yes. Researchers tell us that a lack of sleep can wreak havoc on the hormones that control your appetite. Ever wake up after a few hours of sleep and crave a giant stack of pancakes swimming in syrup? You are not alone. If you want to reduce the struggle you sometimes have with your appetite, give it every advantage - develop a healthy nighttime routine and get a good night's sleep. Most people require at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night. If you're getting less than this on a regular basis, you could be sabotaging your efforts.


You've probably heard by now that exercise combat stress. Exercise makes you feel in control. It boosts endorphins and mood. If you are a total couch potato, you are more likely to fall victim to emotional over-eating. Just take a walk around the block or take the dog for a walk or toss a ball around with your child the next time you feel the urge to snack. Your blood will start flowing and you may well forget all about your urge to nibble.

Heather Bauer, RD CDN
Heather Bauer, RD CDN


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