How to stop stress eating

Published December 12, 2019


Whether it’s a common daily stressor or a major life change, stress can trigger overeating and sabotage our weight loss efforts. Stress eating can become a common coping mechanism, diverting our attention away from the feelings we want to avoid and provide a temporary distraction or momentary comfort. We may feel better initially, but often guilt and frustration follow, making it even harder to stay on track. The good news, however, is that you can take steps to regain control of your eating habits and get back on track.

Image of woman stress eating

Why we stress eat

Everyone has a relationship with food that is developed early in our lives. We learn what food pleases us, how food gratifies our body and makes us feel better. “Interestingly, physical and emotional pain appear – very similar in the brain, so it’s not a far leap to figure out that sometimes the taste of food and how it sits in our stomach not only makes us feel good but gives us temporary relief from all kinds of discomfort,” says Jerry Walker, PhD, board certified counseling psychologist at Nebraska Medicine. “Additionally, food is something largely within our immediate control, as opposed to common stressors like financial issues or relationship issues. When we’re hungry, we have a wealth of (immediate gratification) options for how to deal with that; therefore, when we experience all kinds of stress, but especially that which we perceive to be outside of our ability to control – we can become motivated to make ourselves feel better, even temporarily, through something we can more easily control.” 

Stress eating and women’s weight loss

Women often take a primary role in grocery shopping and meal preparation for their families. Consequently, there is often an emotional investment in the meal. When stress enters the picture, it can feel easier to eat what the kids are eating, reach for an unhealthy snack at work, or head to the drive through on the way to soccer practice.  

“Women are typically more vocal about their stress and are more likely to seek help as opposed to men” according to Lauren White, physician assistant at the Nebraska Medicine Bariatrics Center. So while stress eating can be an issue for women and men, women are more likely to speak up about this issue during their weight loss journeys.

Identify stress eating triggers through journaling

Identifying what triggers stress eating is an important part of the process. Tracking eating and drinking habits and examining our relationship with food is a useful tool for weight loss success. According to Dr. Walker, “the idea is to realistically determine both how much you’re eating but also why you’re eating. A daily log of everything you consume can help illuminate some of these trends, and if you pair that diary with a similar log of the stress or other emotions you’re experiencing throughout the day, then certain patterns may emerge. Being able to identify and label these emotions, as well as how they’re influencing your behavioral responses, can help you choose to engage in noneating (or healthier eating) options, instead. 

By making connections through journaling, we can practice mindfulness to distinguish head hunger versus stomach hunger. “I have patients keep a symptom log. This will allow them to journal what they are feeling and why. There are times we feel sad and we want to go to food instead of a nonfood coping skill. It also allows patients to be more aware of what emotions draw them to food and why. I have had patients realize that though they go to food, it does not make them physically feel better and in fact, some report feeling worse after eating/overeating to treat their emotions” says White. “I want to empower my patients to know that they can have control, which ultimately is the self preserving control we all have.”

According to White, there are specific questions to ask and answer when documenting in a journal:


  • What emotions are you experiencing right now? – sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, loneliness, and so on. Acknowledge that emotion and write it down
  • Next to it, write why you may be experiencing that emotion – fight with a friend, spouse, colleague, death in the family, anxiety about going out somewhere, boredom, and so on
  • Ask yourself, “Is this something I can control?”
  • If yes, find ways to get through the emotion without food – going for a walk, listing things they are grateful for, text or call a friend, read, engage a hobby, or meditate
  • If no, then we encourage you to work through the emotion. It helps to acknowledge we can only control our own emotions and not how others respond. This can be a difficult process to work through, so often we encourage a person to work with a therapist

How to stop emotional eating

Along with identifying and addressing stress eating triggers, we need to remind ourselves often that eating is for reasons of sustenance. We can mindlessly overeat out of distraction while simply paying no attention to how much (or why) we are eating. “I think it’s important to engage in mindful eating, focusing on each bite and slowing down the pace of eating, even take breaks periodically or between bites. Not only can this help us savor and enjoy food more, but it allows our body to tell us when it’s full and when we can stop eating. And at the same time, if binge eating episodes seem to be more fueled by emotions rather than caloric needs, then it can be helpful to identify what you’re feeling, why (or where it came from), and alternative methods aside from eating which may help make this feeling more tolerable” says Dr. Walker. “With sadness and boredom, for example, if the goal is to lose weight, then rather than eat to distract or temporarily make these emotions bearable, you could go for a walk – kind of like the “opposite” of eating, but much more in line with the overall goal: to reduce the discomfort of the negative emotion.”

How to keep on track when you feel like quitting

Staying on track for the long term is undoubtedly met with moments of frustration, tempting us to just give up. When this happens, try to remind yourself what motivated you in the beginning and avoid complacency by reminding yourself often. Stay motivated with a clear goal to work toward. “I have encouraged patients to put notifications on their phone as a reminder of their "why" because there are times we get so caught up in life, we lose sight of this. I also encourage patients to put together vision boards for their future and look at them frequently. Our patients are provided binders in the New Direction program and some have put their "why" reminders in collage form on the front cover of their binder” says White. 

Remember, true lifestyle changes take time and there are no quick fixes. Be patient with yourself, and practice mindfulness. Work to break old habits while establishing new, healthier ones. The temptation to respond to stress by overeating is real, but with the right mindset, tools, and support, you can overcome it.

Note: Weight loss results vary depending on the individual. No guarantee of weight loss is provided or implied.