Why We Stress Eat and How to Stop

It’s 9 p.m. The kids are finally asleep, the kitchen is (sort of) clean, the dishwasher is running and the last email has been sent. And, there you are on the couch, with the remote in one hand and a bag of chips or bowl of ice cream in the other. You’re not hungry, but eating carbs, sugar and fat can feel so good at the end of yet another long day. Many women, especially working mothers, are under so much pressure on a daily basis that they turn to stress eating in an attempt to relax and unwind.

“When you feel stressed, cortisol is released into the body, and you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods,” says Susan Albers, an author and psychologist who specializes in eating issues. “It does work. Food has a fleeting impact on our emotions, but we’ve found it’s only three minutes and then it fades.”

Thus, the cycle continues. Three minutes later, you’re reaching for another cookie, chasing the momentary high you got from the last one. It is possible to break the vicious cycle of stress eating — but willpower alone won’t solve the problem.

“My clients beat themselves up because they are making bad choices, and it is actually physically driven,” Melissa McCreery, a psychologist and emotional eating coach, says. “You actually are hungrier when you are tired and stressed, and you are craving junk food.”

McCreery says she works with many high-achieving women who are so chronically stressed that they don’t even realize there is a problem. Once you recognize that you have an unhealthy amount of stress in your life, you can begin to address it. McCreery says the best place to start is by getting more sleep — a minimum of 7.5 hours per night.

“Interestingly, there have been studies on sleep-deprived women, and even when they controlled for calories, women who were sleep deprived weighed more,” McCreery says.

So, as tempting as it is to use the precious few hours you have to yourself at night to chill in front of the TV, you’d probably be better off just going to bed. When you’re craving those high-sugar, high-fat foods, your body may be trying to tell you it needs more shuteye.

Another small but powerful way to reduce stress is changing what you do first thing in the morning. For most of us, we roll over in bed and immediately check our email on our phones. When we begin our days by responding to what other people want from us, those stress hormones are coursing through our veins before we even get out of bed.

“If you just take five to 10 minutes to think about what you want to get out of the day — maybe do some deep breathing or have a cup of coffee or tea, that will help you be more purposeful about how you address difficult situations later in the day,” McCreery says.

It will come as no surprise that exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Dr. Caroline Cederquist of weight loss program BistroMD says that while eating or drinking alcohol may temporarily make you feel better, they don’t do anything to dissipate the hormones released into our bodies when we’re under stress (i.e., that “fight or flight” response you have when your boss yells at you or you have a fight with your teenager).

“We’re not going to fight physically, so we don’t need those hormones anymore,” Cederquist says. “You can bring those feelings down by eating, but you don’t get rid of stress hormones unless you burn them off with exercise.”

Most of us can’t duck out for a long run whenever a meeting gets stressful or dinner conversation becomes tense. But, Albers says a little bit of movement can go a long way in reducing stress — and the junk food cravings that come with it. She recommends a quick walk around the block, some stretches at your desk or a self-massage with tennis balls.

McCreery says to successfully stop stress eating, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of munching when the going gets tough. It helps to identify what you’re actually seeking when you typically turn to food, she says. If what you’re after is a moment of calm, you might substitute deep breathing. If you’re craving a feeling of unwinding after work, change into comfy clothes instead of making a beeline for the fridge.

“Food is really easy. It is everywhere, and it is accessible, so we’ve gotten really comfortable using food as a band-aid — as a comfort strategy or reward when you don’t feel like you have the time to do something else.”

Becoming more mindful about what you put in your mouth can also help combat stress eating. Albers recommends using what she calls “the three Ss”: savor food, slowly chew and sit down.

“The more focused we are, sitting at a table and eating, the more we are going to be less distracted by what we’re eating,” she says.

Evelyn Resch is a nutrition therapist and the co-author of “Intuitive Eating.” Intuitive eating, she explains, is when we give ourselves permission to eat whatever foods our bodies are truly craving. Much like a baby who cries when hungry and then turns her head away from the breast or bottle when full, Resch says adults can re-learn to respect their own hunger and fullness. Instead, most people create a bunch of strict rules about what they can and cannot eat. They steadfastly avoid “forbidden foods” like chocolate, cake, pasta or cheese — until they get stressed, and then they binge on those same foods.

“If you know you can eat whatever you want, then you can stop yourself when you’re not really hungry,” Resch says.


More from Make It Better: 

  • 11 Ways to Maximize Your Walking Workout
  • Water: The Key Ingredient for Better Health
  • Recharge Your Body and Mind With 10 Moves in 10 Minutes