Stress Eating and How to Overcome It

empty chocolate papers in an empty box of chocolates
Derin Thorpe/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Stress eating is consuming food in response to your feelings, especially when you are not hungry. Stress eating is also sometimes called emotional eating. Emotional eating means that your emotions — not your body — dictate when and how much you eat.

Why Does Stress Eating Happen?

Some stress eaters binge when they are sad or confused.  For others, eating can be a way of avoiding thinking about problems or taking the action required to solve them.

So why do we eat when we are stressed? Because for most of us, food offers comfort. And unfortunately, the least healthy foods usually offer the most comfort. 

If we reached for veggies in times of emotional discomfort, we'd be OK. But how many people turn to carrot sticks when they're feeling stressed? It's the high-fat, high-calorie foods we love that make us feel better. The more fattening, sweeter or the saltier the food, the better we seem to feel.

Are You a Stress Eater?

You are an emotional eater if you answer yes to any of the following questions:

  • Do you ever eat without realizing you're even doing it?
  • Do you often feel guilty or ashamed after eating?
  • Do you often eat alone or at odd locations, such as parked in your car outside your own house?
  • After an unpleasant experience, such as an argument, do you eat even if you aren't feeling hungry?
  • Do you crave specific foods when you're upset, such as always desiring chocolate when you feel depressed?
  • Do you feel the urge to eat in response to outside cues like seeing food advertised on television?
  • Do you eat because you feel there's nothing else to do?
  • Does eating make you feel better when you're down or less focused on problems when you're worried about something?

If you eat unusually large quantities of food or you regularly eat until you feel uncomfortable to the point of nausea, you have a problem with binge eating. If you binge eat on a regular basis, please speak to your healthcare professional. But if stress eating is the main problem, you may be able to find a solution on your own.

3 Ways to Stop Stress Eating

There are different ways to control emotional eating and turn your stress into a more positive experience. But all three methods require you to examine and change your habits. So you need to be committed if you want to stop stress eating for good.

  1. Find the source of stress. Many people have stress triggers that cause them to eat. Perhaps there are relationship issues that cause pain. Or perhaps family or work stress has gotten out of control. If you can identify your triggers, then you can take active steps to tackle stress before it gets out of control.
  2. Find new ways to relieve stress. Once you know what causes you to eat more, set up healthy systems to avoid eating in those situations. Learn healthy ways to relax and reward yourself. For example, if your work environment is stressful. Identify one friend who can walk with you during your lunch hour to avoid excess calories and promote healthy activity.
  3. Get help for emotional stress. If your own methods don't stop stress eating, don't be afraid to ask for help. Many social workers and psychologists are trained specifically to deal with emotional eaters and find solutions to curb the habit.

One thing that usually does not help control stress eating is waiting and hoping that it will change. Take active steps today to tackle emotional eating and find new healthy habits to manage stress.