Eating Habits When Stressed

What do your eating habits look like when you are stressed? Do you tend to eat more of certain food items or do you avoid food all together? Our bodies have such an interesting response to stress. That fight or flight response and release of adrenaline can manifest itself in different ways. I know for myself, when I am stressed and have a lot to do, I don’t always feel hungry. I have so much on my mind that I sometimes just forget to eat or I only eat a little bit. Then the foods that I carve tend to be unhealthy. I could easily devour a whole sleeve of Oreos when trying to meet a deadline.

So what happens to our bodies when we find ourselves under stress? Our brain looks at the situation we are in and then determines if we need to be concerned or if we are fine. The area of the brain that interprets what we are seeing is the amygdala. The amygdala then signals a message to the hypothalamus if there is a perceived threat. The hypothalamus then notifies the rest of your body to fight or flee. This part of the brain controls the autonomic nervous system (involuntary bodily functions like breathing, heart rate, dilation of blood vessels). This autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic system.

  • Sympathetic nervous system = the gas pedal and initiates the fight or flight response. This is what controls your body to take action against a threat.

  • Parasympathetic nervous system = the brake pedal and helps you to calm down after a stressful event.

All of this happens so fast that you don’t even notice it. It is amazing how quickly your body makes these decisions and then you find yourself feeling stressed or calm/relaxed.

So now that you have idea of what is happening physiologically when you are stressed, let’s talk about one of the side affects of being stressed - a change in our eating habits. Whether you tend to avoid eating or over eat, either of these behaviors are not ideal. When you overeat you tend to crave fat and sugar containing foods. Those food have been found to help decrease your body’s stress response. So when you ingest fat/sugar rich food items your body’s reaction is to calm down. This also tends to be a stress behavior for more women compared with men. Lots of time men will turn to other things when stressed like alcohol or smoking to relieve that tension.

One stress hormone that our bodies release is cortisol. This hormone can been correlated to increasing in snacking behaviors. When you have higher levels of cortisol circulating in your body you have a tendency to overeat and snack more.

So what are some ways that you can work to decrease stress in your life instead of just avoiding food or overeating?

  • Getting physically active. Being active, getting up and moving can have a huge impact on lowering your stress levels. When you exercise your body releases endorphins and that helps you to feel happier and to relax. Physical activity helps your body work through those anxious feelings you are experiencing. Focusing on something else can be a key part of relaxing and getting to be a less stressed state of mind.

  • Making a “To Do” list. Another helpful tip is to take a moment and write down a list of all the things you need to do. That way you don’t have to worry about forgetting something important. That list can be on your phone, a hand written list, a note on your calendar or whatever works best for you. Half of the time when we are stressed, we are concerned with forgetting things we need to do so simply writing that information down helps to reassure yourself that you can handle it.

  • Asking for help. Often when you find ourselves in a stressful situation, we don’t ask for help. It can be hard to ask for assistance and that can be overwhelming. Even though it can be hard, asking for help leads to you feeling better in the end. Any time you are going through a challenging situation it is easier to handle when you have someone else. When someone helps you that reminds you that you are cared about and it will all be ok. Remember to ask for help if you need physical, mental or emotional support. You have loved ones who care about you and will be happy to come along side you and support you.

At the end of the day we all deal with stressed and often that leads to messed up eating habits. Finding ways to help manage that stress and then focus on better eating habits will help you feel better and more confident. So take note of your own stress response … what do you tend to do when under pressure? Are there ways you can better handle stress? Do you have someone you can turn to for help and support?


  1. Understanding the stress response

  2. Why stress causes people to overeat