Signs You May Be Stress Eating & How To Break The Habit

These days, society is very conscious about trying to follow healthy eating habits. As a result, you may be the type who examines your allergies and sensitivities, avoids preservatives, hormones, and additives, and even tries to improve your relationship with food through meditation. But you're only human, and everybody craves their favorite cheat foods now and again — especially if you're going through a tough time. After all, that's why we call them comfort foods.

Depending on your tastes and background, your idea of comfort food might include anything from fried chicken and hamburgers to tamales or congee. Ultimately, it's not about the ingredients or the meal itself, but about how the food makes you feel. Even when you're having a terrible day, it can seem like homey, familiar foods take the edge off a bad mood.

Unfortunately, using food as an emotional crutch isn't always the best idea. It can be a slippery slope from treating yourself to ice cream as a pick-me-up to developing dangerous eating habits. For instance, if you're the type who consistently prefers to drown your anxiety in tacos, you may be falling into a trap known as stress eating. But how can you tell the difference between a harmless splurge and cause for concern? Here's what you need to know about stress eating, from telltale signs to resisting temptation.

What is stress eating?

The connection between our emotions and our impulses is complex, to say the least. This includes our impulse to consume, whether we're talking about drinks, snacks, or full meals. Sometimes, we might use food as a reward or to stave off boredom. Or, when it comes to negative feelings, we might use food as a diversion. VHI Healthcare explains that emotional eating is a way to focus on external stimulation like the flavor of food instead of confronting our psychological distress.

This holds true for the concept of stress eating. In a nutshell, stress eating is a form of self-soothing that uses food to ease psychological pressure. People prone to stress eating may reach for their favorite snacks in response to specific worries, like an upcoming presentation, or simply in response to generalized anxiety. The key point is that they're eating to give their body some kind of distraction or physical reassurance.

And this has nothing to do with physical need. "When we stress eat, our hunger is never fully satiated," clinical psychologist Dr. Mark Winwood tells Marie Claire. "This hyper response to food suggests a stronger emotional connection than is healthy." So even if you're right on track for your daily calorie needs, your emotional state might leave your body crying out for more.

Of course, eating when you're not really hungry can lead to all sorts of problems. In the short term, you might feel nauseous, gassy, or bloated. In the long term, overeating has been tied to health conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and more (per University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). Unfortunately, the solution may not be as easy as deciding to stop using food as a comfort blanket, thanks to your body's hormonal response.

The hormone link between stress and hunger

If you're an emotional eater, you're essentially self-medicating using food. But it turns out that stress itself can also influence what types of food you tend to reach for. When your body is flooded with cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone," your brain may push you to select snacks that are high in fat, salt, and sugar (via Cleveland Clinic). Basically, it thinks you need fuel to endure whatever is triggering your fight-or-flight response. As far as your subconscious is concerned, fast-acting junk foods seem like a shortcut to re-energize yourself.

But giving into the temptation of salty, fatty, or sugary foods can also lead to physical dependence and help cement stress eating as a go-to behavior. Sugar, for instance, has been likened to cocaine for its addictive potential (per Addiction Center). By rewarding your brain with dopamine, the feel-good hormone, sugar and other junk food can build irresistible cravings and make it easier to cave to stress eating again later.

And just as the icing on this terrible cake, a study in Biological Psychiatry reports that stress may lower your metabolism. Participants exposed to stress burned fewer calories, suggesting that people experiencing at least one daily stressor could gain extra weight to the tune of 11 pounds a year. So not only can anxiety push you to eat more and choose less healthy foods, but it may also inhibit your ability to burn off the calories you've consumed and maintain a stable body weight. But you still have to eat, even when you're having a stressful day, week, or year. How can you be sure whether you're experiencing stress eating, to begin with?

Signs you're stress eating

You're well within your rights to satiate your hunger with cookies or nachos when you actively choose to. But it can be difficult to differentiate between a conscious decision to treat yourself and the compulsiveness of stress eating. One red flag is mindlessness. Did you intentionally decide that you wanted that food, or did your body just gravitate to it? "People get on autopilot," registered dietitian Allison Knott describes the impulse to Time. Stress eating "becomes part of our lives, and we don't necessarily recognize what is happening."

It can also help to take a closer look at your supposed hunger symptoms to determine whether you genuinely need to eat. Emotional hunger may appear abruptly when you're feeling pressured. It may also come with specific cravings for comfort food, and push you to keep eating even when you begin to feel full. And emotional hunger is more likely to live in your head than your stomach — rather than physically feeling a grumbly, empty gut, you may be mentally enticed by the idea of a food's taste and texture (per These are all strong signs that you are eating due to stress, rather than need.

Note: There's a fine line between stress eating and full-blown eating disorders. If you have a compulsion to eat — or, inversely, to suppress your hunger — that seems uncontrollable, don't face it alone. Therapists or medical professionals can help you understand and manage the emotional triggers disrupting your healthy eating habits.

If you need help with an eating disorder or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

How to identify your stress eating triggers

When trying to curb a stress eating habit, it can be extremely useful to identify triggers that push you to eat mindlessly. A stress eating trigger can be any kind of stimulus that your brain associates with anxiety and hunger, whether it's a certain place, person, event, or even smell. For instance, you might find yourself reaching for a comforting bag of chips every time you get a phone call from a high-maintenance family member. Or maybe you tend to make impulsive meal decisions on your lunch break because you work in a high-stress office environment.

Stress eating can even be triggered by things like poor sleep. Getting insufficient sleep can raise your anxiety levels, negatively impacting your decision-making abilities and leading to stress eating. Plus, consistent sleep issues can increase your appetite for high-calorie, carb-rich foods, skewing your ability to make intentional food choices (per Food & Nutrition).

When you start to recognize triggers that may impact your urge to stress eat, it becomes easier to avoid impulsive consumption and focus on practicing mindful eating. Better yet, there are also ways to set yourself up for success by tweaking your lifestyle and daily schedule to create healthier food habits.

Tips to avoid stress eating

One tactic to avoid stress eating is to exercise self-restraint in the supermarket, so you're not surrounded by tempting morsels when anxiety hits. Try to buy your groceries when you aren't feeling stressed, hurried, or hungry already, as these can all lead to impulse purchases of your favorite comfort foods. And while you're certainly allowed to have some less-than-healthy snacks at home, consider keeping them out of sight in your pantry instead of proudly displayed on the counter (per Healthline). That way, you can choose when you want to enjoy a treat, rather than compulsively feeling lured to eat when you aren't hungry or calm.

It can also help to ensure that you're following a consistent eating schedule, so you don't get hangry and make rash food decisions. The same goes for consistent hydration. Believe it or not, it's very common to mistake thirst for hunger, so if you're not drinking enough water, your brain might trick you into reaching for a candy bar rather than the beverage you really need. Plus, dehydration can contribute to stress (per Real Simple). And if you're an emotional eater, stress is the last thing you need.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, take a moment to evaluate your physical and emotional state before snacking. When was the last time you ate? Have you had any nutritious or filling foods today? Are you feeling worried or anxious about something? Taking stock of your situation can help you determine whether you're actually hungry and choose better foods when it does come time to eat.