How to outsmart stress-eating
If you’re like pretty much every adult, you’re stressed out about something right this second. Whether it’s current events or family drama, life is rich with interference when it comes to inner calm. For many of us, that tension translates to food cravings.
The good news: Stress-eating doesn’t have to undermine your wellness goals. Once you decode your stress-eating patterns, you can plan a response that works for you personally. Chocolate included! Here’s how:
Check in with your needs
When food cravings feel out of control—a stressful experience unto itself—do a quick rundown of possible reasons for those cravings. Has a hectic schedule kept you from eating regular meals all week? Might poor sleep be messing with your appetite? This will help empower you to brainstorm workable solutions—say, avoiding stressful news programs before bed, or setting an alert on your phone to break for a proper lunch every day.
Consider a change of scenery
Feelings of stress are basically your body’s way of saying, “Do something!” Luckily, in most cases, reaching for food isn’t the only option. Instead, try taking a 15-minute break from whatever is making you feel overwhelmed. This could involve heading outdoors for fresh air or firing up a game app on your phone. A brief distraction can puncture the stress bubble and intercept an unwanted snack attack.
Look for patterns
If you find stress-eating a recurring struggle, your environment might play a role. Reflect to find common threads: Maybe you tend to stress-eat only when working, for example. Becoming aware of places and times in which you tend to feel overwhelmed will help you brace for those moments and look out for yourself.
Know that stress-eating isn’t a sign of failure
A health-promoting pattern of eating is one that supports your wellbeing physically and mentally. So if you’re having a hard day and just want to enjoy some gummy worms, darn it, don’t beat yourself up for being “powerless.” No single meal or snack in isolation of everything else you do as part of your self-care regimen can make or break your journey.
Stock up for swaps
On that note: Some hard days are unavoidable. So it pays to be prepared with foods that support your wellness goals while pleasing your palate. Read on for some tasty ideas to consider next time stress stokes your appetite.
If you tend to stress-eat pizza, try: A quick DIY pie
A homemade pizza should be fast, foolproof and delicious. Start with a thin, whole-grain base of your choice — think pita bread, an English muffin, bagel thins, or sandwich thins — then top with a few spoonfuls of jarred tomato sauce, 2% cottage cheese, some pre-sliced frozen veggies or veggie leftovers, and a sprinkle of grated part-skim mozzarella cheese. Heat in a toaster oven (or regular oven) until nice and melty, and enjoy. It’ll be in your belly way more quickly than a delivery slice would be.
If you tend to stress-eat tacos, try: Just the filling
Not too many people bite into a taco and say, “Wow, this corn shell is incredible.” That’s because the magic is in the filling: beans, diced tomatoes, a bit of cheese, hot sauce, avocado, salsa, a twist of lime... (We could go on.) Next time Mexican-style munchies strike, toss those delicious elements in a bowl of greens and top with a creamy dollop of plain Greek yogurt. You’ll get the flavors you’re actually craving, amp up your plant intake, and skip the saturated fat, sodium, and refined carbs some tortilla products can pack.
If you tend to stress-eat sweets, try: Mini versions of your faves
Stress can make mindful eating difficult—which means a cheesecake can disappear fast. For anyone with a sweet tooth, it can help to build in speed bumps with small, “fun-size” versions of favorite treats. For example, if you love milk chocolate, consider grabbing a few Hershey’s Kisses instead of unwrapping a full chocolate bar. Each Kiss requires a decision to peel off the protective foil, nudging you to slow down and tune in to satiety signals. Ditto for single-serve baked desserts: Sure, a pint of ice cream would be delicious, but a mini ice cream sandwich might be all you need to satisfy that craving.
If you tend to stress-eat French fries, try: Perfectly crisp oven fries
No need to bid fries goodbye. When nothing else will satisfy, you can enjoy their golden goodness without the greasy drawbacks. Green Giant, Alexia, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods 365 sell frozen spuds that boast the texture, shape and quality of classic fries; the difference is that at home, you can bake them to crisp perfection in the oven rather than giving them the deep-fryer dunk. Another delicious option: DIY baked veggie fries, whether made from eggplant, zucchini, or butternut squash. So many fries, so little time.
Jackie London is a registered dietitian and certified dietitian nutritionist, and holds a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from New York University. WW’s head of nutrition and wellness, London is also the author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked): 11 Science-Based Ways to Eat More, Stress Less, and Feel Great About Your Body.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in June 2021 by Megan Schreier, MPH, senior manager for behavior change science translation at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.