Stress Eating? Here’s Why We Snack When We’re Stressed — And Foods That Help
Life can get complicated. We have projects due at work, bills to pay, kids to raise, and just an overall busy schedule that causes plenty of stress. There are many ways we cope with stress, one of those including eating. And sometimes, too much eating. With a pile on our plates (both metaphorically and figuratively), it may cause unhealthy habits and turn into poor health, which is something many of us may not realize.
To break the unhealthy habit, it’s important to understand why we do it. We spoke to the experts on the reason for our stress eating and they offered advice on foods to eat to help prevent it.
The reason behind stress eating
There’s a reason behind all the stress-eating madness, and it’s very psychological.
“Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, occurs when individuals consume excess food in response to emotional distress or difficult feelings like anxiety, sadness, boredom, loneliness or any other intense emotional state,” explains Daniel A. Monti, MD, MBA. “When our body responds to stress, it releases cortisol, spiking our ‘fight or flight’ hormone levels and provoking cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods that strongly affect your brain’s reward system.”
Dr. Monti says that these types of foods provide a temporary sense of comfort and pleasure by triggering a quick release of “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine.
“Stress can thus easily cause individuals to engage in emotional eating, which is often ‘mindless,’ meaning we are eating but not able to focus on the amount or nutritional value of the food we are consuming or our body’s sense of fullness,” Dr. Monti explains.
Furthermore, he says that eating sweet, salty, fatty foods can also become a coping mechanism because it is a distraction that temporarily relieves one from feelings of emotional discomfort.
“Over time, some individuals develop a conditioned response to stress, associating it with indulgent foods,” Dr. Monti continues. “This learned behavior can lead to habitually negative eating patterns during stressful times. When this becomes a primary coping mechanism and occurs frequently and consistently, it has unfortunate consequences for both physical and mental health.”
Foods to help prevent stress eating
1. Dark chocolate
While Eva De Angelis, LDN from Argentina and a Health & Nutrition writer at Healthcanal.com stresses the importance of finding the root cause of the stress leading to mindless eating, she does have one favorite snacking choice.
“Dark chocolate is my personal go-to food in these cases,” she says. “It gives that indulgence feeling, that alone can be an actual treat to reduce stress.”
Along with that satisfactory feeling, dark chocolate also provides some health benefits, as De Angelis says it’s also rich in antioxidants and magnesium, which can help to reduce stress. Just make sure that you’re selecting the right kind of chocolate in the candy aisle.
“Be sure to choose dark chocolate, at least 70 % to avoid any excess sugar, which could play against us when it comes to stress management,” says De Angelis, “and try to limit it to about 1 ounce per serving.”
2. Fruits and vegetables
Eating a balanced diet and getting nutrients into your body is important in your everyday health, so it’s no surprise that foods like fruits and vegetables can help curb your stress eating.
“Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, which takes longer for your body to digest, thus making you feel full for longer periods,” says Serena Poon CN, CHC, CHN, Certified Nutritionist, Celebrity Chef & Longevity Wellness Expert at Serena Loves. “They’re also packed with essential vitamins and minerals which your body needs to function properly. Lack of these nutrients can sometimes increase feelings of stress and anxiety.”
Poon says that trying fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, oranges, or baby carrots may help to decrease snacking and overeating.
3. Fish high in omega-3s
Rather than grabbing the closest bag of chips or carton of ice cream, Sara Chatfield, RDN at National Coalition on Healthcare, suggests focusing on healthier options that can reduce cortisol levels can help with managing stress eating and establishing healthier habits. One of those options includes foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.
“Some studies have found that fish oil-based omega-3 supplements omega-3 fatty lowered cortisol levels,” says Chatfield. “Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring.”
However, if fish isn’t on your flavor palette, then you can also get omega-3s from plant sources like flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts.
“Avocados are another great choice for a savory snack,” says De Angelis. “High in fiber, healthy fats, phytochemicals, and essential nutrients that can help reduce stress and anxiety, boost concentration, and improve mood.”
Eating this fruit can also improve your overall health. According to De Angelis, regular intake of avocados has been linked to improved nutrient intake. It even reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome.
5. Whatever you’re craving
Sometimes your food cravings will get the best of you, especially when you’re stress eating. But according to Jenn Baswick, RD, MHSc at The Intuitive Nutritionist, let it happen!
“The best food you can eat if you’re stress eating is the food that you’re craving,” Baswick says. “When we ignore our cravings and desires surrounding food, it can lead us to eat even more in the long run.”
Baswick explains that a common pattern that happens when we have a stressful eating response. It starts by knowing when we feel stressed and wanting to indulge in something, but instead trying to find an alternate, healthier option. Once we find that option, we still feel unsatisfied, then go back to the pantry again and again, and eventually end up eating that snack. She suggests that it’s better to skip the pattern and go directly to what you’re craving.
“Learning to honor cravings can prevent overeating,’ says Baswick. “If we’re stressed eating, it can feel never-ending. If we honor what food we’re craving, we could end up feeling more mentally satisfied.”
Moreso, to still take care of your overall well-being when honoring cravings, Baswick suggests a principle she calls, “nutrition by addition,” which is the concept that you allow yourself to eat your original craving food, and add in some other foods to make it a more balanced and well-rounded snack.
“For example, if you are craving and stress eating Oreos, maybe you decide to add some Greek yogurt and raspberries to the Oreos making it a more balanced snack that will keep your blood sugar more stable and balanced,” she suggests. “This way, you’re getting the best of both world – feeling mentally satisfied from the food you desires, and being physically satisfied by adding more nutrient-dense foods in as well.”
Read next: 5 Ways to Curb Your Sugar Cravings