Stress Snacking: Why People Eat When They’re Stressed

Stress sends your body into a tizzy. Your muscles tense. Your breathing and heart rate increase. Your stomach explodes with butterflies or nausea. Your nervous system pumps out the stress hormone cortisol, producing the high-alert “fight or flight” response – and often prompts you to reach for a snack, any snack, to deal with the turmoil. Reaching for food to cope with stress is known as stress snacking or stress eating.

Psychological Contributions to Stress Eating

A number of psychological factors stretching as far back as your childhood habits can contribute to stress eating. If you were given food as a prize for good behavior or grades, you may already view food as a positive reinforcement.

Likewise, fond memories of baking cookies with mom or grilling burgers with dad strengthen the link between eating and comfort. Once this pattern is established, it’s tough to break. The media further fuels the association between food, comfort and instant happiness with ads showcasing people indulging in piled-high ice cream, ginormous juicy burgers and pizza pies dripping with tendrils of cheese.

Physiological Contributions to Stress Eating

Physiological factors also play a role in stress eating, especially when it comes to choosing high-fat or high-sugar foods. High levels of cortisol, along with higher levels of insulin and the “hunger hormone” known as ghrelin, may be to blame for fatty or sugary food choices.

Once those fatty, sugary foods get into your system, a vicious cycle begins. Fats and sugars appear to inhibit activity in the areas of the brain that process the emotions linked to stress, thereby reducing the impact of stress and heightening the cravings for these foods. Fats and sugars are also known for flooding your brain with opioids, the same active ingredients found in heroin, cocaine and several other narcotics. The soothing, calming sensation you receive from a bowl of ice cream or juicy burger is real, further fueling your cravings for more of the same.

A body that’s overly hungry or tired can fall prey to stress eating even more easily. Not only is your body sending strong signals to eat, but you’re less able to fend off cravings and urges for fatty, sugary comfort foods.

Tips to Curb Stress Eating

Keeping your stress snacking at a minimum is possible with a few quick tips.

  • Get plenty of rest to keep fatigue at bay
  • Eat multiple, small, healthy meals and snacks throughout the day to keep hunger at bay
  • Exercise - more vigorous workouts are shown to reduce the effects of stress while low-intensity workouts are proven to reduce cortisol levels
  • Beat stress through activities such as meditation, yoga, journaling, art and talking with friends

Even if stress is a regular part of life, stress eating doesn’t have to be. Adequate rest, regular exercise and stress-reducing activities can take the place of a sugary piece of cake, as can choosing healthy snacks.