7 Tips to Manage Stress Eating

Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM

Reviewed by Mike Bohl, MD

Written by Rachel Sacks

Published 04/15/2024

Maybe you stock up on chips and ice cream after a difficult day at work. Or you have chocolate on standby for disagreements with your partner or roommate. Compulsive snacking when you’re anxious, nervous or overwhelmed is sometimes called stress eating — and there are ways to manage it.

Occasional overeating or noshing on junk food after a stressful day is normal and nothing to feel guilty about. But what happens when it becomes a pattern?

If you frequently stress eat as a way to deal with negative emotions or before or after stressful situations, it could end up taking a toll on your physical health, mental well-being and life as a whole.

That said, it’s very possible to learn how to have self-control with food.

We’ll separate fact from fiction on stress eating disorders and provide tips — like focusing on nutritious foods, finding a support system and managing stress — so you can stop stress eating.

Stress eating is compulsive snacking or binge eating to suppress or soothe negative feelings that come with stressful events or the daily stressors of life. A stress eating disorder may also be referred to as emotional eating, or changes in dietary habits as a stress response.

Of course, stress isn’t the only cause of overeating. You may find yourself reaching for your favorite comfort foods when you’re depressed, angry or even bored.

Stress eating isn’t simply a lack of self-discipline, and people who eat to manage stress or feel better don’t lack self-control.

There’s often more to the story when it comes to noshing on junk food to cope with work, relationship problems or a hectic lifestyle. There are both physical and psychological reasons for overeating that we may not fully be aware of.

Some research puts forth an idea that the more stressed we are, the more likely our brains will associate food with a sense of reward — especially high-calorie foods.

It’s also possible to get addicted to comfort foods (often high in fat and sugar). This can get you stuck in a stressful eating cycle, as these high-fat, sugar-laden foods may dampen feelings of stress and make you feel good temporarily.

Chronic stress — stress experienced over a long period — can result in overeating. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that protects it from whatever is causing distress.

But if cortisol levels are too high too often (you know, those everyday stressors like when you spill your first cup of coffee or get a flat tire), it can impact things like your reward system and fat distribution in your body.

Emotions like stress and anxiety aren’t the only causes of overeating. Even the time of day might play a role in appetite and food cravings. Afternoons and evenings are often risky periods for overeating — especially if you get stressed out during the day (like at work).

We’ll get into the connections between stress and overeating further below. But first, let’s go over some tips for learning how to stop anxiety hunger and stress eating.

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Whether you’ve just finished a long workday or a mega-fight with a loved one, stress can easily sneak up on you and trigger overeating. But learning how to stop anxiety hunger and avoid stress eating is possible.

The next time you’re stressed out and tempted to overeat, consider these tips and coping strategies.

Practice Mindful Eating

Mindful eating simply means paying attention to what you eat and how you feel while eating it.

When you sit down for a meal, whether at the dinner table or on the couch in front of the TV, take a moment to observe your emotions. Are you anxious? What’s your current stress level? Then ask yourself if you’re really hungry and wait a few minutes to determine your true physical hunger levels.

Reach for Healthy Snacks

If you still feel hungry following a meal or after waiting a few minutes to check your true hunger levels, opt for a healthy snack.

Ideally, snacks will focus on a balance of protein, fiber and healthy unsaturated fats to satisfy hunger and provide essential nutrients. Having said that, convenience may also be crucial, so grabbing something easy like an apple or a cup of Greek yogurt is great too.

Eat More High-Fiber, Nutrient-Dense Foods

Managing stress eating doesn’t necessarily mean you need to eat less or stop enjoying your favorite foods — and for many, this isn’t the best approach.

You can still eat your go-tos. But to avoid overeating, try pairing smaller portions of high-fat, high-sugar foods with larger portions of nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods, like fruits and vegetables.

For those concerned about weight gain from stress eating, research has shown that a combination of portion control and a higher volume of low-calorie, water-rich fruits and veggies can be effective for weight management.

Examine Your Eating Habits

Pay attention to your eating habits after a long day of work, while studying for a final, when you’re short on sleep or following a tense conversation with your partner. Do you eat more during these times or tend to choose not-so-healthy foods?

It might be helpful to prepare snacks in advance. Of course, you don’t always know when stress will arise. But if it’s ongoing, planning your daily snacks with smaller portions and healthier choices could help you avoid last-minute stress eating.

Try Stress-Management Techniques

Manage your stress levels with different techniques like breathing exercises, meditation or journaling. Physical activity can help too — even something as simple as a 15-minute walk.

Research has shown that walking outside can reduce anxiety levels, perceived stress and rumination (dwelling on the causes or consequences of negative feelings).

Lean on a Support System

Find a good support system of friends and family to talk about your stress and anxiety rather than using food as a coping mechanism. Your loved ones may also be able to provide accountability if you tell them you’re trying to avoid overeating and replace it with healthier activities.

Consider Mental Health Therapy

If you’re still struggling with stopping stress eating, consider counseling with a mental health professional. Therapy can be useful to learn how to manage stress and anxiety.

To cover all your bases, you might also think about meeting with a dietician. They can help you take a closer look at your eating habits and create a healthy nutrition plan.

Stress eating can get the best of many of us, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Knowing how stress-caused eating behaviors affect you can be helpful, especially when learning how to stop emotional eating.

Stress eating can affect us mentally and physically. Additionally, it can be a vicious cycle. You may find yourself eating more when you’re stressed out, and then stressing out because you ate a lot.

In a study of 58 women, daily stressors led to more than 100 extra calories consumed a day — a difference that could add almost 11 pounds per year. This isn’t really surprising, considering how many stressful things can happen in our modern, day-to-day lives.

There’s also an increased risk of developing diabetes. Studies have shown a strong link between stress eating and higher levels of glucose and insulin resistance.

Overeating as a result of stress can also increase the chances of obesity and prediabetes. The latter is a serious health condition where blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.

Stress can also affect our food preferences. Studies suggest long-term stress not only has us reaching for food high in fat, sugar or both but is also likely to lead to increased appetite and weight gain.

Learning how to stop emotional eating might be easier said than done, but it’s absolutely possible. If you’re worried that stress eating is affecting your mental and physical wellness, knowing how to manage overeating can help you gain control of your health and happiness.

Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Stress eating is a way to cope with or distract yourself from feelings of stress or anxiety. You may feel the urge to eat comfort foods high in calories, sugar or fat.

  • Frequently eating large portions of high-calorie foods with minimal nutritional value can cause a cycle of stressed overeating and lead to an increased risk of health problems like weight gain, obesity and diabetes.

  • To reduce stress eating, try to manage stress with things like meditation, journaling or walking outside.

  • Pay attention to your eating habits, try to be mindful of how you feel while eating or craving certain foods and reach out to your support system for help.

Talking about what we eat can be tricky and sometimes uncomfortable. Food is personal, and diets can be a sensitive topic, especially when it involves physical health, a weight loss journey or emotional distress.

But just knowing that you can manage both overeating and feelings of stress can help improve your mental and physical health.

Consider seeking medical advice from your healthcare provider or meeting with a dietician to develop a healthy meal plan. You can also check out our blog to learn about weight loss medications.

7 Sources

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  3. Chao, A. M., Jastreboff, A. M., White, M. A., Grilo, C. M., & Sinha, R. (2017). Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 25(4), 713–720. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5373497/
  4. Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Habash, D. L., Fagundes, C. P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W. B., & Belury, M. A. (2015). Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity. Biological psychiatry, 77(7), 653–660. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4289126/
  5. Carnell, S., Grillot, C., Ungredda, T., Ellis, S., Mehta, N., Holst, J., & Geliebter, A. (2018). Morning and afternoon appetite and gut hormone responses to meal and stress challenges in obese individuals with and without binge eating disorder. International Journal of Obesity, 42(4), 841-849. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo2017307
  6. Tsenkova, V., Boylan, J. M., & Ryff, C. (2013). Stress eating and health. Findings from MIDUS, a national study of US adults. Appetite, 69, 151–155. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3733123/
  7. Ma, J., Lin, P. & Williams, J. (2023) Effectiveness of nature-based walking interventions in improving mental health in adults: a systematic review. Curr Psychol. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-023-05112-z
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Mike Bohl, MD

Dr. Mike Bohl is a licensed physician, a Medical Advisor at Hims & Hers, and the Director of Scientific & Medical Content at a stealth biotech startup, where he is involved in pharmaceutical drug development. Prior to joining Hims & Hers, Dr. Bohl spent several years working in digital health, focusing on patient education. He has also worked in medical journalism for The Dr. Oz Show (receiving recognition for contributions from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences when the show won Outstanding Informative Talk Show at the 2016–2017 Daytime Emmy® Awards) and at Sharecare. He is a Medical Expert Board Member at Eat This, Not That! and a Board Member at International Veterinary Outreach.

Dr. Bohl obtained his Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Medicine from Brown University, his Master of Public Health from Columbia University, and his Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies—Journalism from Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration and Master of Science in Healthcare Leadership at Cornell University. Dr. Bohl trained in internal medicine with a focus on community health at NYU Langone Health.

Dr. Bohl is Certified in Public Health by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, Medical Writer Certified by the American Medical Writers Association, a certified Editor in the Life Sciences by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, a Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Nutrition Coach by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and a Board Certified Medical Affairs Specialist by the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs. He has graduate certificates in Digital Storytelling and Marketing Management & Digital Strategy from Harvard Extension School and certificates in Business Law and Corporate Governance from Cornell Law School.

In addition to his written work, Dr. Bohl has experience creating medical segments for radio and producing patient education videos. He has also spent time conducting orthopedic and biomaterial research at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals of Cleveland and practicing clinically as a general practitioner on international medical aid projects with Medical Ministry International.

Dr. Bohl lives in Manhattan and enjoys biking, resistance training, sailing, scuba diving, skiing, tennis, and traveling. You can find Dr. Bohl on LinkedIn for more information.

Publications

  • Younesi, M., Knapik, D. M., Cumsky, J., Donmez, B. O., He, P., Islam, A., Learn, G., McClellan, P., Bohl, M., Gillespie, R. J., & Akkus, O. (2017). Effects of PDGF-BB delivery from heparinized collagen sutures on the healing of lacerated chicken flexor tendon in vivo. Acta biomaterialia, 63, 200–209. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1742706117305652?via%3Dihub

  • Gebhart, J. J., Weinberg, D. S., Bohl, M. S., & Liu, R. W. (2016). Relationship between pelvic incidence and osteoarthritis of the hip. Bone & joint research, 5(2), 66–72. https://boneandjoint.org.uk/Article/10.1302/2046-3758.52.2000552

  • Gebhart, J. J., Bohl, M. S., Weinberg, D. S., Cooperman, D. R., & Liu, R. W. (2015). Pelvic Incidence and Acetabular Version in Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis. Journal of pediatric orthopedics, 35(6), 565–570. https://journals.lww.com/pedorthopaedics/abstract/2015/09000/pelvic_incidence_and_acetabular_version_in_slipped.5.aspx

  • Islam, A., Bohl, M. S., Tsai, A. G., Younesi, M., Gillespie, R., & Akkus, O. (2015). Biomechanical evaluation of a novel suturing scheme for grafting load-bearing collagen scaffolds for rotator cuff repair. Clinical biomechanics (Bristol, Avon), 30(7), 669–675. https://www.clinbiomech.com/article/S0268-0033(15)00143-6/fulltext

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