Eating is a key way we fuel and care for our bodies and sustain our lives but we receive many messages from our social environment that might prompt us to use food in other, less healthy and fulfilling ways — for example, to temporarily soothe or numb negative emotions. In moments of stress, it is common to turn to food for comfort. This is known as emotional eating or stress eating.
Stress eating is not an eating disorder on its own; however, it is related to patterns and symptoms of eating disorders and it often requires a similar approach of care, support, and, when needed, appropriate treatment to provide relief and promote well-being.
Stress and Eating
We experience stress at work, in our interactions with family and friends, during critical life transitions, and in response to challenges such as health conditions. Since 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic has also uprooted routines, added new stressors, and required new coping strategies.
The practice of eating to manage stress is common and relatable. For example, many of us will reach for the occasional sugary snack when we’re feeling tired or anxious or use eating to distract ourselves when we’re facing an overwhelming task. But how do our minds and bodies link stress with food? And how is stress eating related to having or developing an eating disorder?
Harvard Health Publishing outlines two biological drivers of stress-related eating:
- Although stress can initially reduce one’s appetite due to a release of adrenaline, ongoing stress leads to the release of the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite. Under persistent stress, cortisol levels can remain high.
- The body’s stress response seems to make us favor foods that are high in fat and sugar. Our stress-eating behaviors can also become reinforcing, leading to cravings and further intake of high-fat, high-sugar foods.
Stress Eating’s Connection to Eating Disorders
For individuals with eating disorders, as well as those practicing stress eating, feelings of worry and distress towards eating are often present. For example, emotional eating may add to a person’s shame, guilt, and self-esteem struggles, possibly leading to an ongoing cycle of difficult emotions and unhealthy eating. Ultimately, stress eating is not a sustainable long-term coping strategy and can end up making a stressful situation worse.
In some cases, the presence of stress eating may indicate that an individual is developing an eating disorder. In particular, people who are struggling with stress eating may be at risk for binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa — two conditions that include aspects of emotional and excessive eating as part of their symptoms.
Overall, regular stress eating is a poor way to manage the stresses of daily life or cope with mental health struggles and those who are struggling with regular stress eating should seek support to build healthier and more effective coping strategies to protect their health and well-being.