Why we Eat When We Are Stressed and How You Can Manage It

Why we Eat When We Are Stressed and How You Can Manage It

Harriet Walker is an Accredited Practicing Dietician and Accredited Sports Dietician, sharing her knowledge and expertise on tips and tricks around nutrition.

Stress happens. It is the response our body mounts when we perceive a threat to our life. When we sense this threat, our body sends out a series of hormonal messengers that prepare our body to fight or flee. Short term, this is a good response to have, as it will likely get you out of trouble. The problem is that when that stressor isn’t a short-term thing. Chronic stress is what we experience when we consistently feel threatened over days, weeks months, and even years. It might be work, family, or financial stress that is hanging over your shoulders causing you to feel tense and overwhelmed. Very commonly, one of the first responses to stress that people activate is eating. But why is this?

Food is delicious, that’s why. There is the food that we know is healthy and that we consume for good health, and there is the food that is fried, yellow, and coated in sugar. The combination of fats and sugar is one that is epically enticing to our brain and sends out a very strong pleasure response when we eat it. It’s no wonder that food is a go-to strategy to make ourselves feel better when we are stressed.


The thing is the ‘ping’ of happiness we feel when we consume these hyper-palatable foods is short-lived and does not help to fix the actual problem that got you stressed in the first place. But as we continue this stress/food response, our brain begins to make new connections and associates stress with eating, and a new unconscious habit is formed. A habit that doesn’t fix the initial problem, but one that can create other problems with weight as a result of excessive consumption of hyperpalatable foods.

So, we can see how stress eating habits can occur, but what can you do to manage this better? The first step is to get a clear understanding of what the actual stressor is and determine if you can come up with a solution to manage it yourself or if you need some help from a trained professional. Stress management is a skill that will get you through life on a much more even keel and is worth the time invested.

From a nutrition perspective, there are a few easy steps you can take to improve your food choices.


Be Mindful

Mindful eating is a strategy that helps you be more aware of the food choices you are making and helps you to be present while eating, rather than being distracted which can lead to a disconnect between your brain and your body's hunger cues. Mindful eating is where you tune into your body’s senses to help you really experience the food you are eating. Go step by step through all the senses to see how the food looks, smells, tastes, and feels in your mouth as you eat it. It helps you slow down and connect with your food.

Be Prepared

Preparation of eating options is another good choice for managing stress eating. By having healthy and delicious options front and center in your fridge or pantry, and moving the less optimal options out of eyesight, you increase your chances of making the healthy choice using the power of suggestion.

Check-in with yourself

Finally check in with the other areas of health and well-being and see if they are in check. Specifically, how are you sleeping? Lack of sleep can make a big difference to your food choices driving you to eat more and choose more of the sweet and energy-dense options in a bid to boost energy.


So next time you find yourself with feelings of stress rising up, take a moment to sit and try to identify the cause of the stress before reaching for the fridge. It might be that you can see come up with a plan to manage it yourself through mindful eating, preparation and lifestyle practices or take the steps to seek qualified assistance to get it under wraps.

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