How to stop stress eating (and what to do instead)

by | Nov 24, 2021

What is stress eating? | Causes | Signs & Symptoms | Consequences | How to manage stress eating | Stress eating at work | Stress eating at night | Is stress eating a disorder? | When to seek professional help

  • Stress eating is extremely common and is actually built into our DNA
  • There are chemical and biological processes that drive us to eat when stressed. So it’s not just a lack of willpower.
  • The key to overcoming stress eating is to figure out what’s causing the stress, what foods we turn to for comfort, and what we can do instead of eating.

If you eat when you’re stressed, you’re not alone. 

For some of us, it’s grabbing a cookie or bag of chips from the cupboard when we feel overwhelmed. 

For others, it’s eating takeout alone in the car after a tough day at work. Or a whole pint of black cherry ice cream just before bed. 

Wherever you sit on the spectrum, with time and the right help, you really can stop stress eating. 

And it doesn’t have to be stressful! We promise.

But before we jump into the nuts and bolts of how to stop stress eating, we need to understand exactly what it is and why we do it. 

Note: If you’re overeating due to stress and want to stop—you can. Noom can help you better understand your relationship with comfort food, be more mindful of your decisions, and give you the knowledge and support you need to stop stress eating. Find out more here.

    What’s stress eating?

    Stress eating is eating as a result of stress, instead of hunger. Here at Noom, we also call it Fog Eating. 

    That’s because when you stress eat, it feels like being in a fog that disconnects you from genuine feelings of hunger and fullness.

    ‘Stress’ covers a lot of emotions: 

    If you eat because you feel lonely, bored, worried, or sad, that’s stress eating. 

    All of these emotions and more can lead you to seek comfort from a very reliable source: 

    Food.

    Eating to cope with stress is extremely common. 

    In fact, 33% of adults say that they regularly over eat or eat unhealthy foods to manage stress.

    And it doesn’t happen because you lack the discipline or willpower to stick to a healthy diet.

    There are real chemical and physiological processes going on in your body that link stress and eating. However, the good news is that with the right tools, you won’t be at the mercy of them.

    When you understand why you feel the need to eat when you’re stressed, a whole new realm of possibilities opens up.

    That fresh perspective is the beginning of your new relationship with food and stress. Imagine just eating nutritious, satisfying food when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full.

    It might seem like a pipe dream, but when you connect the dots between your negative emotions and your eating habits, you can break the habit!

    What causes stress eating?

    When you’re chronically stressed, your body produces cortisol: also known as the stress hormone. 

    That can ramp up your appetite and make you crave calorie-dense foods (think: lots of fat and sugar), because your body ‘thinks’ it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.  

    That’s why stress eating isn’t about a lack of willpower. 

    It’s not your fault and you absolutely have the power to change your behavior.

    What are the signs and symptoms of stress eating?

    If you’re not sure whether stress is motivating you to eat, ask yourself the following questions:

      • Do you change your eating habits when you feel more stressed?

      • Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you feel full?

      • Do you eat to avoid facing up to a stressful situation?

      • Do you eat to soothe uncomfortable feelings, like boredom, loneliness, or anxiety?

      • Do you use food as a reward for ‘good’ behavior?

    Stress eating symptoms are different for everyone, but if you answered yes to a few of the above, you’re probably using food to regulate your uncomfortable emotions.

    The difference between emotional hunger and real hunger (or how to tell if you’re stress eating)

    There’s a big difference between emotional and real hunger. 

    Knowing which is which can be hard, especially if you’ve been using food to deal with your feelings for a long time.

    However, recent studies has given us some clues that help you tell real and emotional hunger apart:

      1. Emotional hunger is usually an instant and overwhelming urge to eat. 

      2. Real hunger is a slower burn. It doesn’t demand instant gratification. 

    If you’re emotionally hungry, you’ll have a range of go-to comfort foods. Usually it’s junk food that gives you an instant fix. 

    You want chocolate ice cream, and you want it now.

    Mindless eating happens as a result of emotional hunger. The irony is that you probably don’t even enjoy it: 

    Your mind goes blank and you’re not even aware of the sensations of eating or the time that’s passed. (That’s why we call it Fog Eating!)

    When you’re eating because you’re actually hungry, you’re a lot more engaged in the process of eating, and you’re more likely to stop when you’re full.

    What are the consequences of stress eating?

    The most obvious consequence of stress eating is weight gain.

    But stress eating is a self-perpetuating cycle that actually increases stress in the long term, rather than addressing it. 

    Stress eating only soothes stress on a very short-term basis. As soon as those feel-good hormones have worn off, the craving returns.

    When you use food to meet an emotional need instead of a physical one, you feel good in the moment. The food satisfies your need for distraction and comfort. 

    But when the original bad feeling returns, it’s accompanied by another bad feeling: 

    Guilt.

    Feel bad, eat, feel bad, eat. And so on.

    If you put on a significant amount of weight, you might feel bad about that too, adding more fuel to the vicious cycle of stress eating.

    So the consequence of stress eating is likely to be more stress eating. 

    And the only solution is to break that cycle.

    How to deal with stress eating

    If you’d like to know how to control stress eating, you need to understand what your trigger foods are, why you stress eat, then identify alternatives.

    Here’s the process we walk people through in the Noom Weight program.

    Pro tip: bookmark, print, or screenshot the section below and come back to it as often as you need.

    Step 1: Identify your comfort foods

    First, figure out which foods you turn to when you feel stressed. 

    According to the Mayo Clinic, knowing the type of food you go for—sweets, baked goods, or grilled cheese sandwiches, for instance—is key. 

    It’s super important to know the signs that you’re about to start stress eating. 

    And feeling an overwhelming urge to eat your comfort foods is probably the biggest warning sign.

     

    💡 Noom activity: Take a 30 second break from this article and write down which foods you turn to when you feel stressed.

    Ice cream? Chocolate? Enchiladas? Sushi? 

    Yes, really—grab a pen and write them down. All of them. No judgments here. 

    You’re probably wondering if you can skip this step. 

    Don’t do it!

    Identifying your own signs is so, so important.

     

    (It’s worth saying at this point that no food is bad, and no food should be banned. We say if you’re craving a cookie, eat one, but in a mindful way.)

    Step 2: Identify the emotion that’s leading you to eat

    When you feel the urge to turn to your comfort food, ask yourself:

    What emotion am I feeling right now? 

    Is it anxiety? Boredom? Sadness? 

    Just naming the feeling or emotion can be a huge step in deciding to do something instead of eating. 

    You can use our Emotion Wheel below if you need help figuring out what exactly it is you’re feeling:

    Step 3: Find the why behind that emotion

    Once you’re clear on what you are feeling, it’s helpful to figure out what caused that emotion in the first place?

    Have you had a bad day at work? Did a friend hurt your feelings? Or did that penguin documentary just seriously bum you out?

    Uncovering what’s causing the stress allows you to either remove that stressor from your life or choose a different response. 

    Step 4: Find alternatives to eating

    What makes you happy?

    What’s something that’s doable and realistic that you could do the next time you feel stressed?

     

    💡 Noom activity: Take a look at our stress-eating alternatives section below and pick 3-5 that feel right to you (or come up with your own). 

    Write them down on a piece of paper or a post-it (yes, right now!). 

    Then when you start to reach for those licorice twists, take a look at your alternatives, pick one, and try it. 

    You can find the ‘happy’ chemicals you get from comfort food from a healthier and more sustainable source. 

     

    Step 5: Reevaluate and see how it’s going

    A big part of the process of changing habits is experimenting.

    After you’ve tried some alternatives for a few days, ask yourself:

    Which alternatives worked best? Which ones didn’t so much?

    Do you need to swap a few out and try some new ones for a few days?

    You don’t have to be perfect. 

    If you beat yourself up, you’re far more likely to overeat. When you turn to food, you’re at the mercy of a basic human drive.

    Focus on being kind to yourself.

    Note: We know that overcoming stress eating is hard. And that just reading a blog post isn’t enough. That’s why when you sign up for Noom, a 1-on-1 goal specialist can help you identify your eating habits and come up with a workable plan to help with stress eating. Learn more here.

    Alternatives to stress eating

    If you want to know how to deal with stress without eating, there are plenty of things you can do instead:

    • Do 5-10 minutes yoga (or more)
      Connecting with yourself and your body dampens the need for outside sources of comfort.
    • Walk or run outside
      Sunlight instantly reduces stress and gives us a different form of energy—with no calories. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a walk around the block or a full 5k, any time outside is helpful.
    • Connect with family and friends
      We’re wired for human contact and most of us don’t get enough. When you’re feeling stressed, pick up the phone and call someone who cares about you.
    • Try a puzzle, boardgame, knitting, or anything creative
      It may not give you the buzz of a candy bar but these activities lower cortisol and bring about feelings of peace.
    • Dance and sing to your favorite songs
      Music and dance are perhaps the best mood-lifters out there.
    • Take a bath
      If you make the time, a hot bath can really help ground and relax you.
    • Journal
      Write down how you’re feeling. Getting it down on paper can bring genuine relief.

    At the end of the day, anything that brings you joy or helps get your mind off the stress will help.

    How to stop stress eating at work

    If you stress eat at work, the following tips can help:

    Start the day with a full stomach
    Have a substantial breakfast that keeps you full until lunch. It doesn’t take much time to make porridge with fruit and nuts, or scrambled eggs with chopped vegetables. 

    Research shows that eating most of your calories at breakfast keeps snacking at a minimum for the rest of the day.

    Eat plenty of protein and good fats
    Protein and good fats (think oily fish, nuts and avocados) keeps blood sugar levels steady over the course of a day.  

    Because blood sugar dips can contribute to anxiety and depression, that not only means that you stay feeling fuller for longer, but you actually feel less stressed too. That’s what we at Noom call a win/win.

    Take regular breaks
    That means stepping away from your desk, getting some sunlight, and moving your body.

    Spend more time outside
    One Noomer realized that meetings were a major source of stress. So she talked to her boss and they started having their 1-to-1 meetings outside while taking a walk.

    How to stop stress eating at night

    If you’re stressed during the day, did you know that your hormones can drive you to the kitchen at night?

    A recent study showed that daytime stress fuels the production of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) at night. So reducing stress at work (see above) is important. 

    We’re also more likely to overeat at night time, just because we’re in close proximity to the kitchen and we’re less busy with the tasks of the day.

    If you stress eat at night, it helps to reduce temptation at home.

    If the food is there, you’ll probably eat it. Make sure you’re stocked up with healthy snacks, or stop eating after dinner. 

    There’s no need to eat any more after your last meal of the day, and studies show that it’s actually beneficial for many people to fast for at least 14 hours overnight. 

    And if you do get the urge to snack in the evening, try having pre-portioned snacks in your cupboard that will satisfy your urge without leading you to overeat.

    Stop stress eating with Noom Weight

    For many of us, stress eating can feel like something we don’t have any control over.

    And trying to change that can feel overwhelming. 

    But it is possible. 

    That’s why we created Noom Weight.

    Our goal is to help people who are struggling with the emotional side of eating to:

      • Better understand your relationship with food,

      • Be more mindful of your actions

      • Give you the knowledge and support you need for long-lasting change

    Sign up for a free trial of Noom here.

    Is stress eating a disorder?

    No. Stress eating is not classified as an official eating disorder. 

    For most, stress and emotional eating is a sign that we need to understand ourselves and our feelings better.

    But for some, stress eating can lead to binge eating, which is an official eating disorder.

    When to seek professional help with stress eating

    If stress eating has led you to start binge eating, we recommend that you seek out professional help. 

    According to the National Eating Disorder Association, you’re likely experiencing episodes of binge eating if you experience three (or more) of the following:

      • Eating much more rapidly than normal

      • Eating until you feel uncomfortably full

      • Eating large amounts of food when you don’t feel physically hungry

      • Eating alone because you feel embarrassed by how much you’re eating

      • Feeling disgusted with yourself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating

    If that’s the case, you don’t have to go through this alone. Please reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for help. 

    And if you feel like you need immediate help, you can also call or text the National Eating Disorder Association hotline.