Whether you’re in a particularly stressful period of your life or you’re experiencing chronic, daily stress, it’s common to turn to stress eating (or in some cases undereating when stressed) for comfort.
That’s completely okay and normal to do! We are human and we’ve all experienced that before. We consume food for many reasons, not just for physical nourishment but because of cultural experience, tradition, social bonding, pleasure, and distractionn, stress/emotions.
Every once in a while, eating for comfort may be exactly what you need, and that’s okay. It becomes more troublesome when it’s something that you’re experiencing on a regular basis, whether that’s monthly, weekly, or daily.
Discover why stress eating is so common, how mindful eating can support you, and a couple of simple actions you can start using today to begin your mindful eating journey.
What Is Stress Eating?
Stress eating happens when your stress levels are guiding what, when, and how much you eat, rather than your physical hunger signals. Stress eating can manifest in two ways, overeating or under-eating.
It’s often characterized by a loss of control around food while in a stressed state. Not only do we reach for food when we’re feeling stressed, but we often lack the ability to connect with our bodies and truly nourish ourselves with what we need in that moment (i.e. like assessing our hunger and fullness cues).
Stress eating doesn’t just have to be in response to a major life event or intense news. It can also take place in response to day-to-day stress like work, collective stressful energy, chronic stress that hasn’t been resolved, or not getting enough sleep. Remember, stress can stem from positive stress, like starting an exciting new job, planning a wedding, or moving to a new city, too.
Stress can appear in so many different ways throughout our lives and it doesn’t always look like something major or something negative.
How Stress Influences Our Food Choices And Leads To Stress Eating
When you initially experience stress, your appetite is likely to go down. This is because your nervous system, specifically your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), puts your body in “fight or flight” mode to respond to the stressful situation. Your brain tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline which increases your heart rate, sending blood to muscles and your heart so you can take action, temporarily putting your hunger on hold (1).
Once that stressful situation or event passes, the SNS returns to its baseline and if the event hasn’t passed, the SNS will remain triggered and responding to that stress.
When this happens, your body releases cortisol, which is why it’s often referred to as the stress hormone. Unlike adrenaline which can put a pause on your hunger, cortisol can increase your appetite (2). If your stress response continues to remain “on,” your cortisol levels may remain elevated.
If you’re experiencing this chronic stress, you’re not only more likely to experience physical hunger, but you’re also more likely to experience more comfort or cravings for carbohydrates or sugary foods.
Sugar can release dopamine — the feel-good chemical, activating the pleasure centers of the brain (3).
All in all, stress eating is both a physiological and psychological response to stress and is normal to experience.
Why Mindful Eating is Key to Stop Stress Eating
One common reaction to stop stress eating that we see in our coaching practice is people trying to avoid their comfort foods altogether or to seek out a diet or detox to get back on track.
Not only do these things not solve the root cause of the problem, but it can actually cause you to under eat or overeat and keep you in this cycle of not knowing how to cope with stress and stress eating. Inevitably, when you’re faced with stress again, you’ll be more susceptible to stress eating.
Avoiding foods can also cause you to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, which takes you farther away from long-term wellbeing.
With mindful eating, our goal is to become more aware of what we eat, how we eat, and why we eat so we can take actions that help us better align with what our unique bodies want and need. When we do that, we’re better able to get to the root cause of many of our unhealthy eating behaviors — whether that’s overeating or under eating or disordered eating.
Helps You Avoid Feeling Guilt Or Shame
Stress eating can bring up a lot of other emotions, like guilt, shame, or even sadness and depression for feeling out of control.
If you’re making decisions from a place of feeling guilty or shameful, you’re not going to be able to act with the best intentions for your long-term wellbeing.
One of the most important things mindfulness does is it encourages you to be compassionate with yourself. When you experience stress eating, rather than feeling shame or guilt, you bring awareness to what you’re experiencing without judgment. When we’re compassionate with ourselves, we can get curious — this is what I call compassionate curiosity — to explore what’s the root cause of our problem and what the best action is to take.
Everything we experience is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and what we need. When you can honor that, you can be compassionate with yourself and take better actions for yourself than when you’re feeling guilty or shameful.
Guides You To Tune Into Hunger Signals To Guide Eating
Part of a mindful eating practice is tuning into our hunger signals before we eat. If we don’t feel physical hunger, we ask ourselves why we may be eating or wanting to eat.
This is what can help you identify when you’re stress-eating.
When you have the awareness that you’re stress eating at that moment, you can get more curious about where the stress is coming from as well as what stress-relieving practice would better support you.
Begin Practicing More Mindfulness And Meditation In Your Day
Meditation plays a big role in mindful eating. Meditation is all about gaining awareness and perspective. It allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Mindfulness and meditation also helps to reduce stress, so when you start practicing a mindful eating lifestyle, you learn how to bring more mindfulness and slowness to all that you do. Layering on meditation — even if it’s two minutes of deep breathing before a meal — can help you cope with stress itself.
How To Stop Stress Eating With A Mindful Eating Practice
Broadly speaking, mindful eating is a practice that allows you to be more intentional with your eating habits while also maintaining a healthy relationship with food.
I teach mindful eating in-depth in my program, but there are a few simple things you can do to get started right away to take the first step to stop stress eating. Just remember, this is a starting point and it’s important to have the full picture of how to properly use this type of practice in your life.
1. Check-in with your stress levels
If you know you are susceptible to stress, start checking in with yourself and becoming aware of the signs of stress in your body, like headaches, missed periods, brain fog, digestion issues, and poor sleep. When you’re better able to evaluate your stress levels, you can avoid stress eating by being more proactive in taking actions that reduce your stress.
2. Tune into your hunger levels before eating
Before you eating, pause and ask yourself where your hunger is at on a scale of 1 to 10. Are you physically hungry? If not, what’s making you want to eat? This practice can help you better identify when you’re stress eating so you can take other actions instead.
You can use a reflective food journal to write down why you’re stress eating and explore when it’s happening. A journal can also help give you a place to work through your stress by writing down what’s causing it and practicing letting the stress go on to the paper and out of your mind.
4. Have a stress-relieving practice to turn to
Create a practice that will help you destress that you can easily do every day or every week. This could be a hot bath with salts and essential oils, getting outside for 30 minutes on a walk, doing some restorative yoga, or meditation. Whatever it looks like for you, be sure to have something regular on your calendar to combat any ongoing stress. You can turn to this practice whenever you notice yourself reaching for food for comfort.
Put This Into Practice
Getting started is always the hardest part. Sometimes all we need is a little extra support!
Our free guide for how to create healthy eating habits is filled with practices, journal prompts, and tips to support you. You can also join our mindful eating program.
Pharmacology of appetite suppression: implication for the treatment of obesity. Halford JC. Curr Drug Targets. 2001;2:353–370.
Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017;25(4):713-720. doi:10.1002/oby.21790
Rada P, Avena NM, Hoebel BG. Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience. 2005;134(3):737-744. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043