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While we often consider the impact that stress can have on our mental health, we may not think about the relationship between our stress levels and our eating habits. 

Studies indicate that stress plays a major role in our food choices, how much we eat, and, ultimately, our ability to maintain a healthy weight.

To gain insight into the research and better understand the relationship between stress and eating, we consulted licensed psychologist Dr. Rebecca Leslie, owner of Best Within You Therapy and Wellness, and registered dietitian Brierley Horton, co-host of the Happy Eating Podcast.

What is stress eating and why do we do it?

Dr. Leslie, a specialist in helping people change their relationship with food, defines stress eating as eating that is in response to a negative emotional state. “It is not mindful nor intentional eating to fuel hunger, but eating based on emotions,” she says.

She explains that stress eating is more complex than simply eating because you are stressed. There are two key reasons why people stress eat:

  1. It serves as a distraction to a stressful event. “When you stress eat, you get a break from thinking about whatever is causing you to feel negatively,” notes Dr. Leslie. 
  2. It can provide a break from feeling pressured, stuck, or controlled. Dr. Leslie says people often feel a sense of freedom when they stress eat, because they are doing what they want to do, instead of what they feel like they should do. 

Further, when we feel benefits from our actions — such as distraction from stress or freedom from control — we are more likely to repeat them, creating a cycle.

The connection between stress, stress eating, and weight gain

To determine the connection between stress, stress eating, and weight gain, we need to take a step back and look at the two types of stress: eustress and distress.   

Eustress

Not all stress is bad. Physical exercise, riding a roller coaster, working on an exciting project, or your first day at a new job are all examples of good stress, or eustress. This acute, exciting stress is temporary; and as long as it is not extreme and we allow ourselves to rest and recharge afterward, it is healthy and needed.

Distress  

Where stress becomes problematic is when it goes from acute eustress to prolonged stress, also called chronic stress, or when it is severe in nature. This type of stress is called distress. When we say, “I’m so stressed out!” We are referring to distress. 

Recognizing the difference between acute eustress and chronic distress is essential when working to understand the role that stress plays in stress eating and in weight gain.

The body's response to eustress vs. distress 

According to Harvard Health Publishing, acute stress typically results in the suppression of appetite, as the body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in and sends us into the fight or flight response. That changes when stress becomes chronic — because when cortisol levels increase, our motivation to eat also increases.

Stress also influences our metabolism. Research indicates a significant relationship between stressful events and metabolic rate. 

As the number of stressors increases, the body’s resting metabolic rate decreases, fat oxidation lowers, and insulin rises. Researchers found that people burned 435 fewer calories during the six hours after a stressful event. Over a year, this reduced caloric expenditure would result in approximately 11 pounds of added weight.

Stress eating and food choices 

Dr. Leslie explains, “When people stress eat, they are typically not eating carrots or celery. And if they are, they are eating them in a larger amount than feels acceptable.” Studies show that the foods we choose when we are under chronic stress are typically high-fat, high-sugar, calorie-dense foods.

“The foods people turn to when they stress eat tend to be foods they label as ‘bad,’ ‘unhealthy’ or ‘junk food,’" says Dr. Leslie. "It tends to be foods they have rules for… foods that they try to restrict or limit during the day.”

Work done at Yale University School of Medicine by Yvonne Yao and Marc Potenza, provides further confirmation. Their findings state, “The stressed brain expresses both a strong drive to eat and an impaired capacity to inhibit eating — together creating a potent formula for obesity. These findings are consistent with behavioral and clinical research indicating that stress or negative affect decreases emotional and behavioral control and increases impulsivity.”

There are a number of physiological reasons that we stress eat, but there are also healthy ways to reduce stress eating. 

4 ways to reduce stress eating

Dr. Leslie recommends four key tactics to help get to the root of the problem and reduce stress eating.

  1. Pause and check in. When you feel stressed and have the urge to eat or snack, Dr. Leslie suggests asking yourself these questions: What you are thinking and feeling? Are you feeling controlled or restricted when it comes to eating, or in any other area of your life? Do you feel like you are not able to do what you want to do? By pausing to check in, you can identify what you're feeling and better determine what you need.
  2. Give yourself what you want and need. “Chances are, if you are stress eating, it is not the food that you are needing,” says Dr. Leslie. Try to identify what you actually want or need, instead of filling that void with food. “In the short term, it is much easier to push down what’s going on than to face it head on. But if there is a problem going on in your life, dedicate the time to trying to problem solve it to find a long-term solution,” adds Dr. Leslie. 
  3. Stop labeling foods "good" or "bad." Foods are not inherently good or bad. When dealing with stress eating, it is important to let go of labeling food in those terms. Dr. Leslie calls this “taking the morality out of food.”
  4. Develop coping skills. Building a tool kit of coping skills is essential for better managing stress. These skills can also be helpful by providing a healthier alternative to stress eating. Dr. Leslie recommends deep breathing, going for a walk, or doing a meditation. 

Horton provides some additional ideas: moving your body each day to get some exercise, going outdoors to spend time in nature, and prioritizing rest are all evidence-based tactics for managing daily stress.

Nutritional strategies to reduce stress

Horton suggests three key nutritional tactics to help manage stress and reduce stress eating. 

Boost your produce

The foods we eat are meant to nourish us — to provide the nutrition and fuel we need. Horton, a registered dietitian and co-host of Happy Eating podcast, emphasizes the role that nutrition can have on our overall stress levels and cautions against going for comfort foods.

“Don't underestimate the value of shifting away from comfort foods to healthy food choices when you are stressed.” 

Her go-to’s for stress-less nutrition: high quantities of vegetables and fruit as the centerpiece of a Mediterranean diet.

Supplement with magnesium

Low magnesium may contribute to elevated stress levels due to increased anxiety and depression. Horton highly recommends supplementing with magnesium as an effective nutritional strategy to reduce stress.

“Take it in the form of a supplement — magnesium glycinate is ideal for anxiety and sleep. Skip magnesium oxide because it isn't absorbed well in our bodies.” Another option is to take an Epsom salts bath to absorb magnesium through the skin.

Adapt with ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress and normalize body processes. Horton recommends it as a supplement to regulate stress, as research shows it can help to stabilize and lower the body’s response to stress by improving resistance towards stress and lowering cortisol.

When to seek help

While Dr. Leslie gives assurance that stress eating can be normal, she also cautions that it shouldn’t go unchecked. Her advice: “If you stress eat on occasion, know that you are just being human. But if it is a pattern or a main coping skill for stress, it is important to address it.”

If stress and stress eating are negatively impacting your life, it may be time to reach out to a licensed mental health professional. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides a checklist for finding a mental health professional that is a good fit for you. 

If you are experiencing severe symptoms or are in crisis, reach out to NAMI directly at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or text 741741.

Experts featured in this article: 

Rebecca Leslie is a licensed psychologist and owner of Best Within You Therapy & Wellness. She specializes in helping people change their relationship with food. She works with individuals struggling with binge eating, emotional eating, and bulimia. Leslie has a specific specialization in eating with a binge component. She also works with clients who have depression, anxiety, or trouble sleeping. She has experience seeing clients in college counseling centers, medical centers, hospitals, and private practice. Dr. Leslie is a board member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, Atlanta chapter as well as part of the Georgia Psychological Association Committee for Independent Practice.

Brierley Horton, MS, RD is a dietitian nutritionist, content creator and strategist, and avid mental health advocate. She previously served as Food & Nutrition Director for Cooking Light magazine. Prior to Cooking Light, Brierley was the long-time Nutrition Editor at EatingWell magazine. She holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communications from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Brierley’s undergraduate degrees are in Dietetics and Nutrition and Food Sciences from the University of Vermont. Her work regularly appears in EatingWell, Better Homes & Gardens, Diabetic Living, Livestrong.com, TheKitchn.com, and more. She is co-creator and co-host of Happy Eating podcast.