June 30, 2020

How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All

Major anxiety can have a major effect on your food consumption

stressed man eating fried chicken

Whether it’s a fight with a spouse, a deadline at work, or simply just too much to do, we’ve all got stress. And if you’re faced with a lot of it, it can take hold of your eating habits.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

There’s a definite connection between stress and our appetite — but that connection isn’t the same for everyone, says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.

Stress causes some people to ignore their hunger cues and refrain from eating for long stretches. For other people, stress turns them into emotional eaters who mindlessly munch.

“Some people overeat when they feel stressed, and other people lose track of their appetite,” Dr. Albers says. “Those who stop eating are so focused on their stress that they don’t hear or tune into their hunger cues. Those who overeat are attempting to distract themselves with food.”

Our brains send cues to our bodies when we’re feeling stressed. That’s part of our fight-or-flight response that helps us deal with perceived threats in our environment, Dr. Albers says.

When you’re feeling stressed, your body sends out cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.

Advertisement

How stress affects your metabolism

Stress doesn’t only influence your eating habits. Studies show it can affect your metabolism, too.

In one recent study, participants who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours, such as arguments with spouses, disagreements with friends, trouble with children or work-related pressures, burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating a high-fat meal.

Researchers say experiencing one or more stressful event the day before eating just one high-fat meal (the kind we’re most likely to indulge in when frazzled) can slow the body’s metabolism so much that women could potentially see an 11-pound weight gain over the course of a year.

How to combat stress eating

The daily demands of work and home life — and even the constant presence of electronic devices — puts people at a high risk for stress eating, Dr. Albers says.

The best way to combat stress or emotional eating is to be mindful of what triggers stress eating and to be ready to fight the urge.

Advertisement
“If you are someone who is prone to emotional eating, know your triggers, know what stresses you out and be prepared,” Dr. Albers says.

Part of being prepared is to arm yourself with healthy snacks, Dr. Albers says. Then if you feel the need to snack, you will at least nourish your body.

“Helping to regulate your blood sugar throughout the day is going to keep your body stable and your emotions on a much better playing field,” she adds.

It’s also a good idea to keep things at your workspace that will help reduce anxiety, like a stress ball. Or try taking a five-minute break every once in a while to close your eyes and take some deep breaths.

Regular exercise and making sure you get enough sleep every night also can help you to better handle the challenges that come up every day, she says.

Related Articles

Overhead closeup of various types of lettuce
March 1, 2024
5 Health Benefits of Lettuce

Lettuce is a versatile vegetable loaded with antioxidants and good-for-you nutrients

A wooden spoonful of salt on a granite tabletop with salt scattered around
February 28, 2024
Why Too Much Salt Can Be Bad for You

Excess salt and sodium consumption is a worldwide health concern

Older couple standing in kitchen taking vitamins
February 26, 2024
Do Men and Women Really Have Different Nutrition Needs?

When it comes to getting proper nutrition, your assigned sex can play a role — but there’s more to it than that

Hand holding an artichoke over a basket of artichokes
February 23, 2024
10 Health Benefits of Artichokes

This unique-looking veggie is fiber-dense and antioxidant-rich, and can improve the health of your gut, liver and heart

overhead photograph of open and empty energy drinks
February 19, 2024
Are Energy Drinks Bad for You?

Regularly drinking these sugar-fueled, stimulant-laden beverages can increase your risk of adverse health effects

Pouring a homemade spinach and banana smoothie into a glass
February 16, 2024
7 Reasons You Should Eat More Spinach

Vitamin-packed and antioxidant-rich, spinach can benefit your brain, eyes, blood and more

Older couple eating lunch on outdoor patio
February 15, 2024
Calories and Aging: Cutting Back Can Slow Age’s Creep

Calorie reduction can do more than just help you lose weight — it can also lower age-related inflammation

Various cuts of red meat displayed
February 14, 2024
Is Red Meat Bad for You?

It has nutrients your body needs, but it also comes with some serious health risks

Trending Topics

White bowls full of pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and various kinds of nuts
25 Magnesium-Rich Foods You Should Be Eating

A healthy diet can easily meet your body’s important demands for magnesium

Woman feeling for heart rate in neck on run outside, smartwatch and earbuds
Heart Rate Zones Explained

A super high heart rate means you’re burning more than fat

Spoonful of farro salad with tomato
What To Eat If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Prediabetes

Type 2 diabetes isn’t inevitable with these dietary changes

Ad