Break Free from Stress Eating: 5 Tips to Get You Started


Stress eating

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We all eat. It’s a fundamental human need. However, when life’s stresses make their presence felt, you might find yourself reaching for that extra slice of cheesy pizza or rummaging around for the secret stash of cookies in your pantry. You’re not alone in this; many of us have experienced this phenomenon known as stress eating 12 or emotional eating.

Stress eating is the body’s way of coping with negative feelings. As a response to emotional distress, we often turn to food for comfort, to relieve stress, or even as a reward after a grueling day at work. Regrettably, this can lead to unhealthy eating habits, where food is used as a shield from emotional discomfort, rather than a source of nourishment. This can set up a vicious cycle of emotional eating that, over time, can impact both our physical health and emotional well-being.

The Psychological Roots of Stress Eating

Key Takeaways:

  • Understand the psychological roots of stress eating.
  • Identify and address your emotional eating triggers.
  • Choose healthier alternatives and include physical activity in your routine.
  • Implement mindful eating practices.
  • Build a support system and set realistic goals.
  • Embrace a balanced lifestyle.

Our relationship with food is complex and layered, often rooted in early childhood experiences. Imagine this: you’re a child, and you’ve had a tough day. You’re upset and crying. Your parents, in an attempt to soothe you, hand you a cookie. Suddenly, you feel a little better. This experience, along with similar ones, creates links between positive emotions and food. When we grow up, these links remain, and we may subconsciously use food during times of stress or emotional discomfort.

The hormone named cortisol also plays a significant role in stress eating. When we’re under stress, our bodies produce more cortisol, triggering cravings for “comfort” foods—those high in sugar and fat, like ice cream or pizza. The higher your stress levels, the stronger these cravings can be.

Identifying and Addressing Your Stress Triggers

To stop stress eating, it’s crucial to first identify what’s prompting you to overeat. Emotion is a big driver. Boredom, loneliness, anger, or even a looming deadline at work—these feelings can all trigger a bout of stress eating.

Keeping a diary is an effective way to spot patterns. Note down what you eat, when you eat, and most importantly, how you feel before and after. This can help you identify your own emotional eating triggers. Once you’ve spotted these triggers, you can find healthier ways to deal with stress. Maybe taking a walk when you’re feeling bored could help, or perhaps you need to have a chat with a therapist to better manage feelings of loneliness or depression.

Healthy Alternatives to Curb Stress Eating Habits

Just because your stomach starts to growl, doesn’t mean you have to reach for the nearest bag of chips. Start by filling your kitchen with healthier alternatives: load your fridge with colorful vegetables, sweet fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains. When you feel a craving come on, give these nutritious foods a try.

How To Use Nutrition As A Coping Strategy For Stress Relief

Physical activity can be another powerful ally in your fight against stress eating. It doesn’t have to be a marathon; a simple walk around the block, a few minutes of yoga, or even a quick dance-off in your living room can help to curb cravings and reduce stress.

Implementing Mindful Eating Practices for Improved Well-being

Mindful eating is a practice that encourages us to pay attention to our hunger and fullness cues, and truly savour the food we eat. It can be a game-changer in breaking the cycle of emotional eating and fostering a healthier relationship with food.

Mindful eating is about taking your time, tasting and enjoying your food, and recognizing your feelings of hunger and fullness. It also involves understanding the difference between emotional hunger, which often feels urgent and comes with specific cravings, and physical hunger, which comes on gradually and can be satisfied by any food.

Creating a Support System and Setting Realistic Goals

Building a strong support system can play a vital role in overcoming emotional eating. Sharing your goals and struggles with trusted friends or family members can provide both motivation and accountability. You may also want to seek professional help, such as a nutritionist or therapist, who can offer guidance and support based on their expertise.

Setting goals is a significant step, but remember to be realistic. Lifestyle changes don’t happen overnight. Small victories deserve celebration, and setbacks are a normal part of any journey toward better health.


Overcoming stress eating involves understanding your emotional triggers, creating healthier habits, and embracing mindful eating practices. It’s a journey that can seem overwhelming sometimes, but the rewards—improved health, a better relationship with food, and an increased sense of well-being—are well worth the effort.

Listen to your body’s cues, not just your emotions, and choose foods that will nourish you, not just momentarily fill you up. Remember, it’s okay to eat when you’re physically hungry, and it’s also okay to indulge in a slice of pizza or some ice cream every now and then. The key lies in the balance, in knowing how to distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger, and in learning to eat to satisfy, not just to soothe.

And remember, you’re not alone in this journey. We’ve all felt the siren call of the ice cream tub after a tough day. But with some practice and patience, we can turn stress eating from a foe into a friend, teaching us more about our emotions and how we respond to them.

See our comprehensive overview of the emotional symptoms of stress. Understand them so you can manage them in time before they become a problem. Note that there are also behavioral symptoms of stress and physical Symptoms of stress.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does stress cause people to overeat?

Stress causes the body to release cortisol, a hormone that helps protect the body from harm. However, when cortisol levels are elevated for a prolonged period due to constant stress, it can lead to an increase in food consumption, fat storage, and weight gain. Eating high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” can also push people toward overeating, as they provide an immediate sense of relief from stressful emotions.

How can someone gain control of emotional eating?

Gaining control of emotional eating involves identifying and addressing the negative emotions that trigger the urge to eat, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. Developing healthy coping strategies, incorporating mindfulness practices, and seeking emotional support from friends and family can help you develop a healthier relationship with food.

What are the effects of high cortisol levels on food cravings?

High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. This is because cortisol not only triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response but also leads to an increase in hunger hormones, which can make you more susceptible to emotional eating.

How to stop stress eating and lose weight?

To stop stress eating and lose weight, it’s essential to first address and manage the underlying stress. Developing healthy coping mechanisms, engaging in activities that promote relaxation, and staying connected with loved ones can help reduce stress levels. Additionally, establishing a balanced diet, practicing mindful eating, and creating a consistent meal schedule can contribute to weight loss while curbing stress-eating habits.

What is the relationship between emotional hunger and physical hunger?

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly as a response to negative emotions and tends to crave specific comfort foods, whereas physical hunger develops gradually and can be satisfied with any food. Addressing the emotional triggers behind cravings while ensuring that you’re eating regularly and healthily can help balance emotional and physical hunger.


  1. Why stress causes people to overeat – Harvard Health[]
  2. Tips to Manage Stress Eating | Johns Hopkins Medicine[]

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Alex Reijnierse