We’ve all been there: A stressful day leads to soothing ourselves with salty chips, a pint of ice cream, or large order of greasy french fries. It can be momentarily comforting to eat these carb-laden, fatty foods that send serotonin levels up, dousing the brain's stress hormone, cortisol, and lending a momentary sense of calm. According to the American Psychology Association, 39 percent of adults say they've "overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress.” Almost half of those stress eaters report engaging in this kind of emotional binging on a weekly basis or more often.

"Many adults report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress and say that these behaviors can lead to undesirable consequences, such as feeling sluggish or lazy and feeling bad about their bodies," according to the report from the APA. And according to the CDC, poor nutrition leads to chronic conditions including overweight and obesity, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and deficits in brain function.

Stress eating causes you to convert calories to fat

And while people turn to high-calorie and high-fat foods during stress, their bodies also store more fat than when they are relaxed, the American Psychological Association states. A recent study shows that women feel more emotionally down after eating junk food than men do.

How to stop the stress eating? First recognize you're doing it, according to new research, and then plan a "lifestyle intervention" to lower stress and lead you to healthier food choices.

Getty Images

What new research states about stress eating: Awareness is everything

The 2020 study published in Nutrients aimed to prevent weight gain with a 16-week program that promoted stress management, healthy eating, and physical activity, 338 participants between the ages of 18 and 39 who were overweight or obese were divided into two groups.

One group was given customized coaching and shown inspiring testimonials from people who had learned to eat healthily and change their habits, and lost weight. The others were handed printed materials but not given the coaching or personalized experience.  Those who were coached were more successful in changing their habits, and it starts with awareness and understanding that food should be used as healthy fuel, not unhealthy comfort.

“We used testimonies in videos and showed interactions with families to raise awareness about stressors,” explained Mei-Wei Chang, associate professor of nursing at The Ohio State University and the study's lead author. “After watching the videos, a lot of intervention participants said, ‘This is the first time I’ve realized I am so stressed out”—because they’ve lived a stressful life,” she continued. “Many of the women are aware of ... having head and neck pain and trouble sleeping—but they don’t know those are signs of stress.”

The participants in the intervention group were more likely to lower their fat intake compared to those in the control group. They also lowered their stress. For every 1 point of stress reduction that the researchers measured, they recorded a corresponding 7% reduction in how often the women ate high-fat foods. The participants were shown how to achieve a healthier and less stressful life and taught how to have a better relationship with food.

“We raise their awareness about stressors in their lives, and unfortunately a lot of these problems are not within their control,” commented Chang in the same interview. “So we teach them ways to control their negative emotions. 'Remember that this is temporary, and you can get through it.' And we give them the confidence to look to the future.”

Stress can also cause people to skip meals

While some people turn to food during stress, others may wind up skipping meals altogether. The American Psychological Association stated:

  • 30 percent of adults reported skipping meals due to stress
  • 41 percent of adults skipped meals weekly or more due to stress
  • 67 percent of adults skipped meals due to lack of appetite

Not eating may cause stress to mount. When we don’t eat for a long period of time, our blood sugar starts to lower as it waits for fuel. This also causes the body to start producing more cortisol (your stress hormone) to help regulate the drop in blood sugar while simultaneously creating more stress in the body. A 2018 study on adolescents found that skipping breakfast increased their risk of stress and depression compared to those that ate breakfast regularly. Rather than just shut down and not eat, choose healthy foods to snack on, or eat a large salad full of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Getty Images

How to reduce stress

Stress can’t always be avoided, but we can try different strategies to handle it. One key is to see stress as a "challenge" but one you can overcome, instead of a threat, research finds.

  • Exercise regularly: Any sort of movement you enjoy, whether it’s walking or dancing, aerobic exercise, or strength training, yoga or jogging, biking or swimming, will help your body combat stress. When you’re active, your brain releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin that can improve mood and help you cope with stress. People who exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day experience several hours of calm afterward, the article explained. This is because there is "good stress" called eustress and "bad stress" called distress and if you exercise you are activating the good stress that is associated with improved performance and productivity. The difference between good stress and bad stress is perception. If you can meet the challenge, it's eustress, but if you feel threatened, it's distress. Training your brain to see your stressors as challenges as opposed to threats is one key coping mechanism to lower bad stress.
  • Try relaxation techniques: Some common examples include deep breathing, guided meditation, and practicing intentional muscle relaxation. These types of daily techniques can be done anywhere. Start by downloading an app on your phone for guidance.
  • See a counselor or therapist: It can be easy to bottle up or push your emotions to the background, and not recognize the amount of stress you're under. Talking it out with a professional can help you cope and find helpful strategies to change your own behavior that can relieve some of the stress. Understanding the triggers to your stress eating, and learning other ways to manage your stress can lead to being healthier.
  • Set realistic expectations: Often the stressors that affect us are out of our control, but it’s important to focus on what we can control. That may mean saying “no” to certain demands that will take up time and energy leading to an increase in stress. Instead focus on being your healthiest, through exercise and healthy cooking, and then work on the things you can control, like your reaction to the stressors in your life.

Stress eating leads to more bad moods. Plant-based foods boost mood

No one wants to ban ice cream, but indulging in junk foods too often, with all the added sugar, salt, and preservatives, can wind up impacting our physical health, and food is not a cure for stress. In fact, stress eating is a vicious cycle and often leads to additional emotional distress as your mood suffers from the effects of the nutrient-poor choices, studies show.

The best foods to eat when stressed are not simple carbs or sweets but healthy whole, plant-based ones: Fruit, vegetables, legumes, and nuts and seeds, which are high in fiber, folate, and other vitamins and phytochemicals that help fight inflammation and improves brain chemistry according to research.

People who eat more fruits and vegetables experience improved mental well-being, according to a study published in the journal BMJ, that found that your gut microbiome (the microbial organisms, including bacteria that help digest your food) "interacts with the brain in bidirectional ways using neural, inflammatory, and hormonal signaling pathways." What that means is your gut tells your brain how to act, and what you eat impacts your gut microbiome. By eating healthier foods, you help not just your physical but your mental wellbeing, the authors concluded.

Bottom line: Stress can create unhealthy eating patterns including choosing high-calorie and high-fat foods, which further drives your moods into a tailspin. Finding healthy ways to relieve stress can help to improve your diet and overall health and wellbeing. And when you need a snack to improve your mood, choose plant-based foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds which help your brain's chemistry and can boost your mood.