5 Ways to Prevent and Manage Stress Eating

Have you ever found yourself reaching for food when you’re stressed?  You’re note alone, 27% of adults admit turning to food to deal with stress, while 34% of these admit it to be a habit. Stress eating is real. It’s a lifestyle habit that has us reaching for food to compensate for dealing with uncomfortable situations.

When we are stressed, we’re feeling emotions like overwhelm, anxiety, nervousness, stomach cramping, shortness of breath, and a racing heart-beat.  Instead of focusing on the root-cause of the issue (managing our reaction to stress), we often turn to food for short-term comfort. Compounded over time, that habit inevitably leads to weight gain, hormone imbalances, and an increased risk of more serious diseases down the line such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

What causes stress eating?

Stress eating is triggered by a variety of issues in our life:

  1. Relationships at home. Challenges in our marriage, raising children, and caring for our aging parents can cause a lot of tension and angst that leaves us with little time for proper nutrition, let alone to think about self-care first.
  2. Work. Short deadlines and top priority projects coupled with a demanding schedule, cranky coworkers and drawn-out meetings often leaves us emotionally drained. 
  3. Your health. A physical setback is stress enough on the body. The emotional toll that it takes can be tough to weather.
  4. Finances. Money management can be stressful trying to manage the day to day income and expenses in addition to looking into the future and planning for retirement.

Why are people stress eating?

Prevent & Manage Stress Eating
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When we are stressed for any of the above reasons, we are typically not focused on what we’re eating so we’re choosing foods that seemingly satisfy a void at that very moment.  We might not be eating because we’re actually hungry; rather, emotionally overwhelmed.

Because our body wants to be in a constant state of pleasure, stress eating is a habit formed as the result of our brain trying to get us back to a “feel-good” state of being.  Unfortunately, we tend to choose sugary, processed, and prepackaged foods that leads to a series of other health-related issues.

So what’s to blame? Our hormones.

  1. Your stress hormones (cortisol)
    A part of your brain sets off a chain reaction of hormones, eventually triggering the adrenal glads to secrete cortisol, our stress hormone. When we are stressed, cortisol is released as a protection barrier to our body. You might have heard of it called the “fight, flight or freeze” hormone.  This is actually a good hormone to keep around – like if a lion were chasing you. We need to react to serious situations.  However, when we re continually stressed and cortisol is flooding our system, it can increase our appetite and and thus, we find ourselves continuously stress eating.
    The longer the stressful period continues, the more stress-eating a person will do. 
  2. Your pleasure hormone (dopamine)
    Have you ever wanted chocolate when you’re feeling down and out? We associate food (specifically, sugar) with good feelings because when we eat foods like candy, simple carbs (or drink a soda, it interacts with the pleasure/pain part of our brain and releases a feel-good chemical (a neurotransmitter) called dopamine.  We love that sugar high feeling (or the dopamine rush) that when it wears off, we reach for that food again and again.  So food now becomes associated with feeling good.

How to prevent stress eating.

Managing our emotions and recognizing thought patterns is imperative to preventing stress eating.  We need to start asking ourselves questions like “are we eating because we’re filling an emotional void or because our bodies actually need it?” 

    • Journal. Combatting your stress-eating can be easier once you recognize what’s happening. Journaling allows you to process what’s happening in your life and how you’re responding to them.
      • Document each time you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious.
        • Write out the entire situation.
        • Outline the emotions you’re feeling.
        • Note the actions you are taking to ease the emotions you’re feeling
        • Jot down the type of food or beverage you reached for shortly after the stressor. How did you feel after you ate or drank those things? What regrets are coming up for you?
        • Share the snack or meal choices you made for the rest of the day. How did you feel after you ate or drank those things
    • Leverage effective stress reducing tools. Journal, exercise, or learn how to use the Emotional Freedom Technique.
      • Treat yourself to a pedicure or a massage.
      • Diffuse essential oils. Choose essential oils that are soothing like lavender, chamomile or bergamot.  Try inhaling appetite-curbing essential oils like clove, black pepper, cinnamon, and grapefruit.
      • Go for a walk. Exercise can significantly help with reducing the urges to binge and lose control of food. When we exercise, we feel good, stronger, and are full of positive endorphins that shift energy around the body. 
      • Drink a giant cup of water. Sometimes we confuse hunger with thirst! Many of us face dehydration iwhen we are stressed.  Water can also keep us fuller for a longer period of time.
      • Enjoy a cup of herbal tea. Choose grounding flavors like cinnamon and spice or chai.
      • Take a bath. Epsom salts, Castile soap and a few drops of essential oil makes for an relaxing and refreshing experience at the end of a busy day.
      • Read an awakening book. I love non-fiction. It keeps my brain busy and learning new things is FUN! Here is a running list of all my beloved books
    • Reduce, remove or find alternatives to what’s causing you stress. There are always solutions. Brainstorm with friends for ideas. Find resources through family, healthcare practitioners or your work’s employee assistance program.
    • Create mindful eating habits. Mindful eating consists of several easy-to-follow steps.
      • Before – Take 4 deep cleansing breaths.  Then, assess your hunger. Is your head reaching for food or is your stomach famished? Take time to note your level of hunger. Identify the foods you’d like to eat and ask yourself: “is this fake, or is this fuel? Lastly, remember how you felt after the last time you ate that particular food. Do you want to feel that way again?
      • During – TV off, reading away and just focus on your food. Notice what colors are on your plate. Savor the smells. Chew slowly, take deep breaks and try to taste every little flavor. Shoot to chew your food 30 times.  Take a break of between 5-10 minutes in the middle of your meal.
      • After – Journal about how you feel physically – note if the food was too heavy, too light, too much, too little, or just enough.


    • Food Prep. Being prepared will help you with healthier options as you work to mitigate stress.  Choose 3 days a week that you want to allocate time to planning.
      • Day 1: Identify 4 healthy meals that you want to make the following week.  Identify which day you’ll make each and on which days you’ll eat leftovers. Write down the recipes for those 4 meals. Identify 6 healthy snack options that you’ll rotate throughout the week (fruits, veggies, hard boiled eggs, nuts, and seeds are great options).
      • Day 2: Create your shopping list by organizing like-ingredients from your recipes and group them in the order in which you move through the grocery store.
      • Day 3: Shop & Prep.  Chop all veggies for each recipe.  Cook & shred the meat if that’s a part of your recipes. Make whatever you can ahead of time for the week to make dinner time go more smoothly during the week. Put the week’s snacks into individual containers or the same snacks into Tupperware containers so that it’s an easy grab and go
    • Look for an accountability partner or hire a health coach. Find someone who you can check-in with and help you diffuse your reaction to stressful situations.  They can be a great distraction or provide you with a great place to just vent and create a plan for future issues.

Find what works for you and share your experience with me on Facebook.



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