Do you turn to food when you feel stressed out by work, family, or social obligations? You’re not alone! Beverly Hills psychotherapist Allison Cohen, MA, MFT, helps explain why you eat when you’re stressed, how emotional eating affects your weight and health, and what you can do instead.

Stress is a common trigger for emotional eaters because so many everyday life circumstances cause the stress and anxiety that leads to overeating. Some stressors come from within, like the stress you put on yourself to be perfect or the anxiety you feel when you want to ask for a raise or confront a problem you’re having with a friend or family member. Other stressors come from outside of yourself, such as the demands of your job, medical issues, family obligations, and social pressure from friends. Some stressors are within your control and some are not.

“Both negative and positive events can cause stress,” Allison points out. “For instance, buying a home, getting married and having a baby are all joyful events but they are still stressful because they involve change, and change always brings new and often anxiety-provoking issues into your life.” And that’s why both positive and negative circumstances can also lead to emotional overeating, she adds.

And which foods do most people turn to when they stress-eat? You probably have enough personal experience to know that comfort foods—those that mentally bring us back to a more carefree time of childhood, and that are often high in sugar, fat, or both—are what emotional overeaters usually crave when tensions rise. Which may help explain why psychological stress and “reward eating,” characterized by a lack of control over the types and amount of food eaten, are two top factors that prevent so many people from losing weight.1

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Does Stress Causes Hunger?

You have both physical and psychological relationships with food. Your physical relationship with food is based on the types of foods you choose to eat, your eating behavior, or habits and how your body responds biologically to your diet. Your psychological, or emotional, relationship with food is based on how you think about food, how you use food for reasons other than to relieve hunger, and how food relates your body image, or the way you feel about how you look.

Sometimes you eat to satisfy true hunger, to fulfill a physical need to eat and survive. At other times, such as when you stress-eat, you eat to satisfy your appetite, or your desire for a particular type of food, because you believe it will provide relief. That’s a psychological, or emotional, need that generally has nothing to do with actual hunger. Emotional hunger is a driving response to overwhelming feelings and emotions.

“Of course, if you’re hungry and stressed at the same time, you may well be eating to satisfy true hunger,” adds Allison. “But, at the same time, you may choose fast food or a sweet dessert over something more nutritious because, at that moment, you’re not trying to eat healthfully.”

The biological reason you overeat when stressed may be that persistent stress causes increased and ongoing secretion of a hormone called cortisol into the bloodstream, and high blood levels of cortisol are linked to increased appetite. Stress-related levels of cortisol have been found to be significantly higher in obese women than in women at a healthier weight, although that link doesn’t always result in overeating.2

5 Ways to Handle Stress Eating

In order to get control of stress eating, you have to control your stress levels. The best way to deal with stress is to address current situations head-on and, at the same time, learn to be prepared to handle stressful situations in the future before both the problem and your eating behavior get out of hand. These 5 steps can help you manage stress and avoid stress eating:

  1. Know your stressors. Identify the circumstances and emotions that lead you to stress-eat. These are your emotional eating triggers, and once you recognize them, you can take steps to avoid them or at least be prepared for them.
  2. Exercise to reduce stress. If you’re physically fit, you’re more resistant to the effects of stress.3 Exercise causes chemical changes in the brain that reduce stress but, unfortunately, stress itself can prevent some people from taking steps, like exercising, that could make a difference in their mental and physical health.4 If your personal circumstances make it difficult for you to get to the gym or even do formal exercises at home, try to increase the amount of walking, gardening, cleaning and other lighter forms of movement and exercise you normally do from day to day.
  3. Reach out for help. Talk out your feelings and your unhealthy responses to stress with close friends and family who can give you the support you need to get through tough situations. If you often feel guilt, shame or regret over your eating habits, you may want to speak with a professional counselor.
  4. Develop a practice of mindfulness. Meditation, yoga, tai chi and other mindfulness-based exercises and programs help calm the mind and the body. When you are mindful, calm, and focused, you are better able to make smarter and healthier lifestyle choices.1 Mindful eating—slowing down and paying more attention to what and how you eat—is a form of mindfulness.
  5. Learn intuitive eating, a practice developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch back in the 1990s that complements mindful eating, and that is still recommended by nutrition experts today.5 Intuitive eating means paying more attention to the natural, internal hunger and fullness signals sent between your brain and your gut. These signals help you determine when, what, and how much to eat. It’s also about trusting those signals. Once you understand and trust your own natural eating cues, unless you have dietary restrictions, you can give yourself permission to give in to a craving for, say, chocolate cake just as easily as you give yourself permission to eat vegetables, without guilt or shame. You’ll know intuitively when to say “enough!” Your decision is based on hunger as well as the appeal of certain foods at certain times, but not on how stressed or emotional you feel in the moment.

“Eating intuitively empowers you to learn what your body feels like when you are truly hungry versus hunger that is instead powered by stress or the need for emotional comfort,” Allison explains. “When you understand and pay attention to the ‘why’s’ of what your body is craving, you’ll have a better understanding of how to manage stress-eating.”

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Last Updated: Jul 15, 2021