The Effects of Stress on Eating

The Effects of Stress on Eating

Publish Date February 24, 2023 4 Minute Read

Stop the Stress Eating Cycle

We've all been there: You had a terrible day, and nothing sounds better than comfort food. Whether it’s ice cream, cookies, a bag of chips or some other option, these foods can make us feel better in the short term, but they can have some negative effects on our bodies in the long term. It can become a cycle that’s difficult to break. Understanding why we stress eat is the first step to breaking this bad habit.

How Does Stress Affect Our Appetite?

Why do we tend to reach for foods that may not be the most nutritious when we’re stressed out? It’s because of the hormone cortisol. While cortisol aids us in waking up in the morning and being alert throughout the day, chronic high levels of cortisol can create leptin and insulin resistance - two other hormones that play a crucial role in metabolism and appetite. Leptin tells our body when we’re full, and insulin helps to break down carbohydrates and sugar into energy. Therefore, leptin resistance means your hunger increases, and insulin resistance means that sugar which would have been used for energy will now be stored as fat. So, we still might feel sluggish after a meal, making us want more food. In short, your hunger and fullness cues might feel totally out of alignment.

How Does Stress Affect Our Food Decisions?

Daily stress, family struggles and major life events can lead to not only mental fatigue but decision fatigue as well. You're hungry, but you're not sure for what. You know you should cook, but the thought is causing even more stress. You want to continue striving for your health goals, but fast food is calling your name. A "let-loose" mindset or lack of motivation might lead to food and health taking a backseat.

3 Strategies to Manage Stress Eating

Let’s take a look at a few ways to manage stress and food in our daily lives. It might be easier than you think.

1. Be prepared for decision fatigue. Decision fatigue can hit at any time, especially with stress. To battle it, you need a game plan. Not sure what to cook? For more inspiration, check out a variety of easy and quick recipes. Don't have time to cook? Consider slow cooker recipes. Don't want to cook or clean at all? Have homemade freezer meals prepared in advance, like this Plant-Based Lasagna.

2. Keep it simple. Sometimes diets, calorie tracking, macro tracking and “eat-this-not-that” advice can make food feel like a foe instead of a friend, adding even more to your plate. When times are chaotic, just remember these 3 things: protein, fiber and color. Protein and fiber help you feel satiated and keep those hormones we mentioned earlier, insulin and leptin, in check. Color (think fruits and veggies) provides antioxidants to protect us from disease and help our immune systems.

3. Find healthy coping strategies for stress. Stress is inevitable, so it’s up to us to learn how to respond to it in a healthy way. Here are a few favorite options.

  • It’s OK to eat – try re-creating favorite comfort meals with a healthy twist!
  • Exercise – step outside and take a walk to reset your stress level.
  • Call a friend or family member.
  • Listen to some relaxing music.
  • Make your favorite hot or cold beverage and sip it slowly.
  • Do some breathing exercises – inhale for 10 seconds and exhale for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

Various factors can influence how and what we eat, stress included. Now you know how stress can biologically and mentally affect our eating patterns, how to eat when stress strikes and how you can apply healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress. Feeling like stress and emotions are affecting your relationship with food? Reach out to one of our registered dietitians to learn more.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.