How to Combat Stress Eating

When we don’t manage our stress well, it can lead to issues with our health, including an expanded waistline. There are biological and emotional reasons why we reach for food when we’re stressed. Understanding how stress affects our bodies, and our eating, is the best way to combat stress eating. David Knieriem, MD, a family medicine doctor with ProMedica Physicians, answers some basic questions regarding stress eating.

Why does stress make me eat?

Eating is the body’s natural reaction to stress. In prehistoric times, dangerous situations – such as an encounter with a wild animal – would trigger a human’s “fight or flight” response. This would release two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline allows your body to get more oxygen to the lungs, increasing physical performance for short bursts of time. Once the stress of the danger passes, cortisol is released, increasing your appetite and fatigue.

Today, our body works the same, but the stress factors have changed. Although you aren’t fending off or fleeing from wild animals, an argument or stressful phone call still creates the same “fight or flight” response. When the stressful situation has passed, increased cortisol makes you hungry, even if you haven’t used much energy.

The foods we crave while stressed often include carbohydrates and sugars, which provide quick energy. Unfortunately, this can lead to unhealthy choices such as chips and sweets, which can eventually mean weight gain or obesity.

How else does stress affect my body?

Stress is your body’s natural reaction to high-pressure situations. Experiencing stress for a long period of time can have a negative impact on your health. In addition to weight gain, stress can lead to:

  • High blood pressure
  • High heart rate
  • Changes in metabolism
  • Changes in blood flow to your muscles
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Digestion problems, such as diarrhea or constipation

How can I stop stress eating?

Helping your body relax will help stop your body’s response to stress, and will ultimately curb your stress eating. Try to identify stressful situations and avoid them when possible.

Sometimes, stress can’t be avoided. Job worries, financial problems, busy schedules, and other commitments can contribute to rising stress. People may also experience stress internally, when they are not living up to their own expectations related to values, goals and self-image.

Here are some tips for managing stress:


Making an effort to breathe in a slow and gentle pattern can calm the automatic nervous system and make you feel more relaxed.Try our 5-minute meditation for beginners.


Getting at least six to eight hours of sleep each night helps refresh and relax your body. Here are 10 ways to get a better night’s sleep.


Physical activity can boost your endorphins, clear your mind and improve sleep.

Eat nutritious foods.

Sugary and fatty foods deplete your body of nutrients and can affect your mood negatively. Reach for a healthy alternative, such as crunchy carrots to relieve tension or a banana to satisfy your sweet tooth. Click here for healthy recipes.

Find support.

Surround yourself with supportive people who can help you with the stressful situations you are experiencing.

Avoid nicotine; use caffeine and alcohol in moderation.

These substances may make you feel better initially, but their effects can make you feel worse and lead to long-term health problems.

Managing stress can be difficult. Finding ways to reduce and manage stress can help you take charge of your stress and your eating. If you’re experiencing chronic stress, talk with your primary care physician.