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Tackling Stress Eating

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Tackling Stress Eating

How many times have you come home after a stressful day, only to head straight to the refrigerator or pantry? Stress can affect how and what we eat and in turn, impact our weight and overall health. 

Why do we reach for food during periods of high stress? Our Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services team discusses why stress eating is so common and what you can do to break the habit. 

Overeating and Stress

According to the American Psychological Association, people seek high-calorie, high-fat foods during periods of stress. In fact, 38 percent of adults admit to overeating or eating unhealthy foods every month because of stress. Half of these adults say they are challenged by this weekly.

During stressful times, the body’s adrenal glands release cortisol, which increases our appetite hormone, ghrelin. Those high cortisol levels, combined with high insulin levels, also cause us to crave foods high in fat and sugar. Also, studies show when people are stressed, their bodies store more fat than when they are relaxed. 

As a double-whammy, being sleep-deprived can ramp up our appetite even more. The extra calories consumed (mint chip ice cream anyone?) can lead to weight gain. 

Mindfulness to the Rescue

There are many strategies to help manage emotional or stress eating. First, slow down and take a look at your eating habits. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you're feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, patterns can reveal the connection between mood and food.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” Is your hunger physical or emotional? 
  • Get support. You're more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. 
  • Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you're not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, play with your pet, listen to music, read or call a friend.
  • Take away temptation. Set yourself up for success by moving challenging (just a little “too delicious”) foods to the garage refrigerator or don’t bring them home at all.
  • Snack healthy. Stock up on high-volume foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip or unbuttered popcorn. You can also try some of the low-calorie versions of your favorite foods to see if it satisfies your craving.
  • Tame your stress. If stress feeds your emotional eating, try stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation or mindful relaxation.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program that helps calm the mind and body to help cope with illness, pain and stress. The idea is to cultivate awareness or mindfulness and focus on things happening in the present moment. MSBR teaches us how to purposefully pay attention and be aware of surroundings, emotions, thoughts and how our body feels.  

There is more and more promising research surrounding this practice. Some studies show  MBSR can reduce stress, help us sleep better and ease depression symptoms, among other things. 

Remember, we are all amazingly human. Everyone overeats at times. The best strategy is to forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Learn from the experience and create strategies to better manage the challenges in the future. 

If you find you still need help, schedule a visit with a registered dietitian nutritionist. For more information on services available at Cooper Clinic, visit or call 972.560.2655. 


Article provided by Meridan Zerner, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN, CWC, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.