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  • Writer's pictureJo Leccacorvi

Stress eating

When it comes to sugar cravings, one of the common things I hear from my clients is about stress eating. They find this habit really hard to break and the reason for this is because they never feel like eating healthy food when they are stressed.

Stress can come from a variety of places, being a parent, illness, work stress, having too much to do, juggling the mental load or feeling overwhelmed. As well as external sources of stress, there can also be internal stress, for example, negative thought patterns, catastrophising, anxiety or depression. Whatever the cause of your stress, it can have a serious impact on your food choices and frustratingly, it can get in the way of your health goals.

Why we stress eat

Stress eating has nothing to do with your perceived lack of will power, it is more to do with your body’s response to stress and the hormones is releases when you are under stress.

When you experience acute stress your body releases adrenalin as your ‘fight or flight response’, this allows your body to deal with the stress either by running away or staying to fight it. If the stress is on-going it releases cortisol and the effect of cortisol is an increase in your appetite and impact your food preferences.

Studies have shown that cortisol can increase your cravings for sugary, salty or fatty foods. It is your body’s way of getting fuel so that it can fight the perceived stress. Another thing to note about cortisol is that when this hormone is elevated it also releases glucose into your blood stream which can have an impact on your blood sugar balance and potentially send you on a rollercoaster of energy highs and lows that can increase your sugar cravings. So, if you are constantly stressed your cortisol levels may stay elevated, leading to cravings for unhealthy foods which may be worsened by unbalanced blood sugar levels.

So, when you are stressed, your body is creating a physiological drive that shows as food cravings for junk food. This is important to acknowledge, as often, my clients blame themselves for turning to processed foods when they feel frazzled and overwhelmed. They often say they have no willpower and are ‘lazy’ and they develop a negative self-talk which in turn becomes an internal source of stress and prolongs the body’s response to stress and the release of cortisol.

How to stop stress eating

From a nutritional perspective there are a few different things to put in place to help you control your cravings. For example, ensure you are including plenty of protein, healthy fats and plant-based foods in your everyday diet. This helps to control your blood sugar balance and reduce your sugar cravings as well as supporting your general health and well-being. However, it is important to get to the bottom of what is causing your stress rather than just focusing on your snacking.

How to deal with stress

Whatever your health goal is, whether it is to lose weight, control your sugar cravings, address your PMS symptoms, to reduce your digestive symptoms or find balance with your perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, it is important to have an awareness that stress can be a barrier to your achieving your goal. Stress can have a big impact on your health and it you may want to address with how you deal with stressful situations before you embark on your health journey.

As I’ve mentioned above, sources of stress can be both external and internal. Examples of external stress can include work related stress, family pressures, major life changes, relationship difficulties or financial worries, it can be difficult to deal with this stress as you have no control over it. Examples of internal stress could be negative self-talk, setting yourself unrealistic expectations, striving for perfectionism, or having an ‘all or nothing’ attitude.

If you are under an external source of stress, you may not be able to control it but what you do have control over is how you react to it. If the source of your stress is internal then you have the ability to change your internal dialogue and how you see yourself. This may feel overwhelming but if your work with a therapist they will guide and support your through the process. It can be hard work but is can also be very powerful and liberating change.

Other ways that you can help yourself with managing your body’s response to stress can include:


Practicing regular meditation can have a calming effect on the body and help restore calm. Studies have show that meditation can help lower cortisol levels in the bloodstream. Meditation may also help you build resilience towards stress by helping you to refocus your thoughts and move away from a negative thinking pattern.

There are many apps that you can download for free and listen to guided meditations. This is a good way to introduce yourself to meditation if you are unsure what it is about.

Get active

You don’t have to take up running to be more active. In fact over exercising can be another source of stress and may elevate your levels of cortisol. What I mean by get active is think about how you can move your body more. Being active can help you reduce your stress levels, this could include going for a walk, gardening, give yoga or Pilates a try. You may want to consider investing in some light weights and try some resistance exercises, there are tons of free workouts on YouTube. Remember to go at your own pace, start low and slow and focus on consistency.

Understand your triggers

Take the time to understand what your triggers to stress eating might be. Are there any particular situations that trigger your stress eating? Understanding your triggers help you to create an awareness of them and how you can begin to think about how you might deal with that situation and be prepared.

Support network

If you are experiencing a prolonged stressful situation or are suffering from anxiety or depression is there a network of support that you can call upon? Having a support network can help you get through any tough situations by talking about your feelings and having someone to listen to you can be helpful. Your support network could be friends, family, a group of people who have lived a similar experience to you.

Prioritise time for you

If you are feeling stressed it is really important that you prioritise time for yourself. If you live a busy life this may feel like you’re adding another thing to your to do list but if you don’t find the time for you, you may end up feeling burnt out. Being active can help reduce your stress but rest is equally as important for your mental health. If you are constantly on the go and doing one thing after the other then this may impact your health.

Rest is important for your mental health, your mood, your memory, your concentration and your energy levels. Constantly pushing through your tiredness without allowing yourself to rest is the ultimate energy drainer and trigger for stress.

Don’t feel guilty about resting, think of it as recharging your battery, a bit like when your phone batter is low, you plug it in to charge. You need that too.

If you find yourself stress eating remember to worry less about what you’re snacking on and focus on what is causing the stress and how you can address whatever it is so you can reduce your stress levels.

If you would like to discuss anything I have discussed in this article why don’t you click here and book in for a free chat with me?

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