Stress and Binge Eating: Why We Do It and How to Avoid It


Whether it’s an upcoming deadline at work or moving to a big city, stressful life events tend to trigger cravings for comfort food. Sitting in front of the TV with a cheeseburger and chocolate ice cream may seem like the easiest solution for emotional woes, but halfway through the pint of Rocky Road is when guilt and frustration usually set in. Eating is a common coping mechanism for stress, but studies have shown it does nothing to decrease stress levels and can lead to serious weight gain.[1]

Why We Eat When We’re Stressed 

Stress triggers our body’s “fight or flight” response that releases a hormone called cortisol into our blood stream. Cortisol increases hunger because the body craves energy to combat whatever stressor we may be facing. We especially turn towards junk food because our body craves energy-dense foods that are high in calories, sugar, and fat.[2] Unfortunately, these foods actually increase stress further and contribute to weight gain.[3]

Being overwhelmed by stress can also disrupt normal eating habits because eating  diverts our attention away from the thoughts we want to avoid. This may provide temporary distraction and comfort, but it doesn’t solve the underlying stress-causing problems. Studies have shown that stress levels do not decrease after overeating, and binging on junk food can actually cause more anxiety.[1]

Is this the Same as Binge Eating? 

Binge eating is defined as consuming an excess amount of food in a limited period of time[4], so overeating due to stress could be considered a form of binge eating. Binge eating disorder (BED), however, is classified by having at least one episode of binge eating a week for three consecutive months.[4] Patients suffering from BED show complete loss of control and breakdown of emotion and impulse regulation,[4] which may seem similar to the feeling one gets while stress eating, but is more extreme. One major difference between the two is that individuals with BED have shown an improved mood after a binge, whereas those sporadically binging because of stress do not.[4] The fact that the mood improves in binge-eating  is responsible for the chronic nature of the binges.

How to Avoid Eating When Stressed 

  • Face the problem head-on: address what is making you stressed rather than distracting yourself with food.
  • Make plans with friends: “comfort foods” have been shown to decrease feelings of loneliness[5], so surrounding yourself with friends could help fight cravings.
  • Do something that relaxes you: go for a walk, take a bath, or meditate for 10 minutes to reduce stress and allow cravings to pass.
  • If you must indulge: accept your stress and allow yourself to savor one small treat rather than lose control and eat large amounts.

What to Eat When Feeling Stressed

Foods high in nutrients and antioxidants are not exactly what you might crave in a stressful situation, but they have been shown to decrease stress in the long run by improving immune function or giving a steady source of energy.[6] Instead of reaching for that bag of chips, munch of a handful of fresh blueberries or almonds. Other foods that are high in nutrients and antioxidants are salmon, avocado, asparagus, grass-fed beef, and even dark chocolate.

For More Information

To learn more about emotional eating and the best ways to avoid it visit WebMD here. For more information about how to decrease stress without expanding your waistline visit http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/manage-stress.aspx

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

  1. Tsenkova, V., Boylan, J. M., & Ryff, C. (2013). Stress eating and health. Findings from MIDUS, a national study of US adults. Appetite, 69, 151-155. Doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.05.020
  2. Migala, J. (2015). Why you stress-eat and how to stop it. CNN. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/09/health/avoid-stress-eating/index.html
  3. Tsenkova, V., Boylan, J. M., & Ryff, C. (2013). Stress eating and health. Findings from MIDUS, a national study of US adults. Appetite, 69, 151-155. Doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.05.020.
  4. Munsch, S., Meyer A. H., Quartier, V., & Wilhelm F. H. (2012). Binge eating in binge eating disorder: A breakdown of emotion regulatory process? Psychiatry Research, 195, 118-124. Doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2011.07.016
  5. Troisi, J. & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: “Comfort Food” Fulfills the Need to Belong. Psychological Science, 22(6), 747-753. Doi: 10.1177/0956797611407931
  6. end Wahlqvist, M. (2013) Antioxidant relevance to human health. Asia Pacific Journal of clinical nutrition, 22(2), 171-177. Doi: 10.6133/apjcn.2013.22.2.21