The Science Behind Stress-Eating

Stress-eating – we’ve all done it at one point or another. It’s practically an encouraged and fully-supported societal norm. Boss getting on your nerves? – Have some ice cream. Fight with significant other? – Have some chocolate. Kids getting driving you up the wall? – Pass the potato chips.

The good news – stress-eating, and the feeling bad about yourself that follows, is not inevitable.  

Stress-eating, a form of emotional eating, can be from many things – internally induced distress, externally produced pressure, perfectionism or approval seekers/people-pleasers, says Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, licensed psychotherapist, author and blogger.

Koenig explains, “Stress eaters generally have underlying anxiety disorders or a history of trauma. They have developed the habit of eating to reduce stress because they have never learned more effective habits.”

science behind stress eating

The science behind stress-eating

So what exactly is going on in our bodies that cause us to turn to food when we feel stressed out?  Turns out, a lot.

When our bodies experience stress, it impacts our hormones—specifically cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response, so it makes sense that it would kick into gear during times of stress,” explains Dr. Candice Seti, The Weight Loss Therapist, licensed clinical psychologist, a certified personal trainer, and a certified nutrition coach.  “The problem with this increase in cortisol is that it often causes an associated increase in appetite. Hello, stress-eating!”

She went on to say that when we’re stressed out, other hormones are also impacted, like insulin and ghrelin (our hunger hormone). This impact causes us to crave foods high in fat and sugar. Here’s why: fatty and sugary foods (often known as comfort foods) seem to chill out the part of our brain that sends stress signals.

In addition, Karen Chambre, LCSW. Psy, .D Candidate, explains that carbohydrates increase brain concentrations of an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that assists the body in making serotonin. Therefore eating carbs can often lead to feelings of calmness, or even the sense of being “numbed out,” which brings the desired effect of relieving stress to those who binge.

No more berating yourself for grabbing carbs and sweets when you’re stressed; there are real biological reasons that are causing those cravings.  However, just because we know the science behind stress-eating, doesn’t mean we have a license to reach for food.

What to substitute when your body feels pulled to stress-eat

What can we do when a pint of Ben & Jerry’s seems like the best solution to our stressful lives?

Like any addiction, the five D’s can be applied, says Irene Stronczak-Hogan, B.Pharm. Hons. R.Ph. and NCMP.

  1. Distract: Do something else; take a walk, go jogging, hug a tree. 
  2. Delay your cravings: They will go away, even though it seems they will last forever. 
  3. Deep breathe: It helps reduce cortisol and put us into parasympathetic mode rest and relax; even a few minutes helps. 
  4. Drink water: It seems simple and may not taste as good as chocolate chip cookies, but it helps with hunger and is much better for your mind and body. 
  5. Discuss: Find a friend that you can talk to.

Last but not least, Stronczak-Hogan says, if all else fails and the ice cream tub is empty don’t beat yourself up about it, tomorrow is another day. 

Dr. Seti, ahem, stresses that physical activity is a key component to managing stress. Getting up and moving helps circulate the blood, which allows fresh oxygen to be delivered throughout the body’s cells. Fresh, oxygenated blood builds serotonin and oxytocin-neurotransmitters/hormones. These hormones work to counteract cortisol.  

In addition to reduced levels of cortisol, regular physical activity can be a welcome distraction from your source of stress. Plus, it’s a great way to reset your brain, so things become a little clearer and more focused.  Go dance around your house, take the dog for a walk, climb some stairs, have sex, or do yoga.

Mental strategies to relieve stress

There are things you can do with your everyday thought processes, so that stressors are no longer, well, stressful for you.

Koenig recommends that you reduce external pressures if possible. Sometimes a person needs to leave the stressful situation.

You can also work with a mental health professional to change harmful cognitive thought patterns, like perfectionism, wanting to do things “right” or be the best, all/nothing thinking and approval-seeking. Develop an internal sense of what’s “good enough.”

Read books about emotional eating and seek an eating disorders therapist if necessary.

Seti adds that getting solid quality sleep can help ensure your body’s resources are replenished to help you fight stress.

Mindful tactics to address stress-eating

There are plenty of mindful techniques to try when the stress hits and your inclination is to reach for food.

Koenig recommends: 

  • Recognize when you’re feeling stressed. Stress eaters are usually disconnected from body signals, which let them know they’re stressed. 
  • Change self-talk to reduce stress and increase calm. Stop catastrophizing, avoid words such as must, should, have to, need to; say, “I’m doing the best I can.” 
  • Avoid letting thoughts drift to the past (rumination) or the future (anxiety), but remain grounded in the present.
  • Reframe food as something done for nourishing the body and for occasional pleasure.
  • Practice eat mindfully without distractions and pay attention to the taste, texture, chewing, fullness, etc.

Chambre adds a couple more ways to use mindfulness. Before you start eating, take a pause and see if you can notice feelings or thoughts that you are experiencing even if you are not sure how to label them. You can use journaling to discover your internal world.  

Second, establish a daily reflection ritual when you feel the need to stress eat to ask yourself a series of questions such as “What am I feeling?” What am I thinking”? or “What event precipitated the craving?” If all you get is a word, write it down. If you continue daily, you will see a pattern and become attuned to your body’s needs. The key is to become aware of your internal world and listen to your body’s needs.

And of course, meditation is a wonderful stress management tool as it calms both the body and mind simultaneously, says Seti. In addition to providing that calming effect, meditation helps build mindfulness skills which can translate into mindful eating.  When you meditate daily, you become much more aware of your eating patterns and habits. This awareness may stop you from reaching for those temporary stress-relieving comfort foods.  You can experience the positive effects of meditation in as little as five minutes a day.

Stress-eating solves absolutely nothing.  All the cookies, cake, ice cream and chips you eat will not change the stressful situation one iota.  Instead, they create a second problem—the risk of developing an unhealthy eating disorder.

So the next time your kids, significant other, your boss, or just plain life sets you off, you now have a ton of tools at your disposal to keep you from stuffing your face with junk food.  You’ll be glad you avoided it.

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About Ronni Robinson

Ronni is a member of the Sandwich Generation; she's the tired lunch meat layered between two children and aging parents. She is an eating disorder recovery coach, a 3-time Ironman finisher, and is a certified spin instructor. Her first book, Out of the Pantry: A Disordered Eating Journey, can be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can find more of her professional writing and coaching info on her website (

1 thought on “The Science Behind Stress-Eating

  1. An excellent article as always, Ronni. I didn’t know that deep breathing helps reduce cortisol and puts us into parasympathetic mode. That will be my new favorite coping strategy.

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