Almost everyone experiences cravings from time to time, and the moment when your impulse takes over may feel very difficult to manage. But what’s really going on in your body to cause this type of impulsive stress-eating?
Stress-eating can show up in a few different ways and its causes can often be overlooked. Here, we’ll take a closer look at how the body works to better understand what is really happening in stressful times and how you can find a balance without sacrificing the pleasure of a good meal.
What is Stress-Eating?
Stress-eating might look different for one person than it does for another. Here are some of the most common signs to look out for.
Signs of Stress-Eating
- Intense physical hunger or cravings for specific foods
- Feeling that you’re “out of control” and more prone to overeating or binge eating
- Feeling over-full from eating larger amounts of food
- Noticing that you may eat despite not feeling hungry and more so as a result of strong negative emotion triggers or responses
- Reaching for less healthy comfort foods such as processed foods with higher sugar more often than more balanced nutrient-dense options
Some people may find that their stress-eating is associated with strong sensations of hunger or cravings, while others may feel that their eating is driven by powerful emotional responses.
In both cases, it often doesn’t do much good to simply try to “resist” the powerful urges that overwhelm you in the moment. What can be more helpful is to understand how to set your body up for reducing triggers and cravings in the first place. We’ll share some tips on how to do that later on.
What Causes Stress-Eating?
You might think you know all about stress, but not so fast! As we’ve discussed in other blogs, stress includes any pressure applied to the body. Whether that pressure is helpful or harmful depends on the dose!
For example, the stress of load-bearing activities like lifting weights can actually help your body build muscle and support bone mass. But if you apply more weight than the body can handle, you may tear a muscle or even break a bone. With stress, finding the right balance is important.
When you stress-eat, you may be experiencing a high level of stress that your body struggles to process. This stress could be coming from a few different places and it can impact many areas of function, including mental health.
When you think about the reasons why your body may experience higher amounts of stress, you have to think about the different sources of stress your body encounters regularly, which may include things like:
- Emotional or social stressors
- Nutrient imbalances
- Exercise you may have not tolerated or been well-fueled for
- Poor sleep
- Fasting less or more than your body needs
- Injuries or infections
- Intolerances to foods, supplements, or medications
- Underlying medical conditions that compromise our body’s function
The Stress Response: You Are Unique
Each individual person is unique. Factors like sleep, exercise, and fasting can differ from one person to another, and can lead to different levels of stress depending on the person. Eating in response to stress means that you might be eating as a result of one or more of the above areas overwhelming your body.
For example, you are more likely to feel persistent hunger when you are missing key nutrients in your diet, when you aren’t fueling well enough to support your workouts, or if you have imbalanced blood sugar. All of these things are actually stressors!
The Effects of Stress Eating
How and what you eat may have a powerful effect on your mood, emotions, and food choices. Studies show that heightened states of emotional distress can alter hormones like cortisol, insulin, and ghrelin, leading to higher intakes of fats and sugar as a result. Once eaten, these foods may influence how your stress-response works, even regulating your stress-related emotions.
The emerging field of nutritional neuroscience explores how nutritional factors are interwoven with human cognition, behavior, and emotions. Some scientists suggest that moods and emotions may be heavily influenced by dietary factors including what and how we eat and that this could mean certain emotional states have deeper nutritional influencers at work behind the scenes.
Knowing what role stress or emotional eating may be playing for you on your weight loss journey can be helpful too. Some research using animal models has shown a connection between stress-eating and weight gain. Other human studies have shown that adults with a combination of less sleep and higher prevalence of emotional eating may be especially vulnerable to weight gain.
10 Healthy Habits to Stop Stress Eating
Now that you know that your food and lifestyle choices may impact your emotions and cravings, where do you go from here? Let’s consider some healthy habits that you may want to explore.
Remember that it’s always important to seek customized medical and nutritional guidance from a qualified professional such as a dietitian who can help you find the right approach for your body.
1) Meet Your Nutrition Needs
As we’ve discussed before, imbalanced nutrient intake may lead to heightened cravings for some people. Though the research is still unfolding and the link between cravings and nutrient intake is a very complex area of study, some preliminary studies suggest a connection.
Some studies have also seen connections between nutrition-related factors impacting glucose and cravings. Here are some common nutrition-related stressors that might be worth exploring:
- Not eating enough protein
- Eating high amounts of processed or refined carbs that may negatively impact glucose regulation
- Missing out on essential fatty acids
- Potential vitamin and mineral imbalances
Working one-on-one with a qualified nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian is a great way to assess these areas and find what works best for you.
2) Fuel Your Workouts
Working muscles need fuel to function properly, and this is especially true during a workout. Under-fueling can negatively impact hormonal balance for men and women and may also alter glucose metabolism in ways that impact nutrient intake needs.
Exercise is an acute stress on the body, and under-fueling for workouts is also associated with increased stress hormone activation. Though research on the direct connection between cravings and under-fueling for workouts is limited, there are studies that have established a link between stress and increased cravings.
3) Tune Into Hunger Cues
Ignoring your hunger cues may have negative consequences for stress hormones as well as blood sugar regulation. Some studies suggest that waiting until you are extremely hungry before eating can lead to increased stress hormone activation.
Ignoring hunger cues may also lead to an increased tendency to overeat less healthy foods.Some studies also suggest that certain types of dieting may increase food cravings, though more research is needed to understand what factors influence this connection.
In human studies, there are also associations between artificially sweetened foods and increased cravings, mimicking the reward effect of sugar. When you are feeling hungry, reaching for nutrient-dense whole foods with minimal added sugar and plenty of fiber and protein may be the best strategy.
4) Test Your Own Tolerance: Caffeine and Alcohol
For some people, caffeine and alcohol can impact cravings. Caffeine will impact the function of your adenosine receptors, often blunting your ability to notice hunger cues. In some cases, this inability to register hunger earlier in the day might lead to more cravings later in the day. Some researchers suggest that caffeine may also increase sensitivity to hypoglycemia in certain people and symptoms of hypoglycemia can include increased hunger.
Alcohol consumption has also been associated with increased tendency for hypoglycemia or reactive hypoglycemia in some cases, through a variety of mechanisms. Since this varies from person to person, testing your own tolerance can be helpful.
5) Remove Temptation
Take stock of your pantry, fridge, and cabinets for junk food. What are your food choices?
If you have a higher number of snacks such as a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream on hand, it might be time to do a little overhaul. If you’re looking for ideas for ways to improve your healthy snack inventory, check out our article on healthy kitchen staples.
6) Practice Mindful Eating
In another blog, we talk all about mindful eating and share some helpful tips for getting started. Though many diets focus on the “what” of your food choices and eating habits, mindful eating is focused on the “how”.
Instead of rushing through your meal, slow down and savor each bite. Breathe more, chew more. Studies have shown a number of positive impacts from incorporating these simple but powerful behaviors.
In one pilot study, participants with type 2 diabetes received training in mindful eating and showed improvement in dietary intake, weight loss, and glucose control.
7) Practice Emotional Stress Management Techniques
Your emotional state can influence a lot about your food choices and your food choices can in turn influence your emotional state. Aside from improving the quality of your diet to support emotional well-being, here are some great behavioral strategies to try:
- Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Research also shows that such breathing exercises can be beneficial for your parasympathetic nervous system and may even improve glucose control. For more guidance on belly breathing and how to do it, check out our blog.
- Set boundaries. In today’s busy world, it can feel nearly impossible to set healthy boundaries around personal self-care time. Being able to set realistic expectations for what you can take on and honoring those boundaries takes practice, but is well worth it.
- Consider including a meditation or mindfulness practice in your weekly or daily routine. Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) has been shown to be an effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems, and is especially effective for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress.
8) Get Enough Sleep
We’ve talked a lot about how sleep can influence glucose regulation in other articles. But how can this impact your cravings?
In adolescents, studies have shown poor quality and quantity of sleep is linked to more frequent food cravings and worse dietary quality overall. Research also shows that sleep deprivation significantly changes activity in specific regions of the brain associated with an increased desire for high-calorie foods.
To help you get better sleep, research supports paying attention to improving sleep hygiene, which may include things like:
- Avoid eating large meals closer to bedtime
- Reduce blue light exposure as well as screen time later in the day, including use of computers and TV and smartphones
- Avoid going to bed thirsty or hungry
- Avoid engaging in higher-demand activities such as watching exciting movies or doing later-day vigorous exercise
- Try to keep a regular daily schedule
- Improve the comfort of your sleeping area
9) Seek Support
It can sometimes feel frustrating to get a handle on stress-eating, but you’re not alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified team of healthcare providers, including nutrition professionals and behavioral health specialists to support you in the journey.
Together you can build a game plan to tackle goals one at a time at a pace that works best for you, without adding more stress!
10) Keep Track of Your Blood Sugar
By now it’s clear that blood sugar is connected to so many of the areas that may impact your cravings. Studies such as this one suggest that there may be a relationship between poorly controlled glucose and cravings. The authors found that even mild hypoglycemia may trigger cravings for high-calorie foods.
Other factors like poor sleep, poor dietary choices, high emotional stress, and under-fueling for workouts can all impact how your body regulates glucose.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.