Don't Let Work Stress Cause You to Overeat

Have you ever eaten an entire a pint of ice cream (or your go-to food of choice) when you're feeling stressed? You're not alone. Studies suggest that psychological stress and food consumption are related.

Physiology of Stress and Eating

Eating when stressed disrupts your digestion, even if you're eating healthy food. Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response: your digestion shuts down and less blood and oxygen flow to your digestive system. You don't metabolize your food well and your body absorbs fewer nutrients.

Stress suppresses your appetite in the short term. However, when stress persists, your adrenal glands continue to release cortisol (a stress hormone) so the level of this hormone remains elevated instead of subsiding when the stressful situation passes. Cortisol increases your appetite and cravings, particularly for high fat, sugary foods (affectionately called comfort foods). Over the long term, this eating pattern may dampen your body's stress response.  

In one small study, subjects with high reported perceived stress were three times more likely to engage in binge eating than those who reported low levels of negative stress. Furthermore, high stress was associated with higher fat diets, less frequent exercise, and less planning for meals, which contributes to overeating.

Overeating, especially unhealthy foods, contributes to obesity, which may lead to serious disease. According to a study in the Journal of Obesity, there is a link between elevated cortisol concentrations and increased abdominal fat. Abdominal fat is associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Researchers say stress-related eating leads to poor awareness of physiological states and an inability to differentiate between hunger cues and emotional arousal. Persistent stress may at least partially explain why many long-term weight loss programs fail.

What Can You Do?

Experts at the University of California, San Francisco advocate overeaters master mindful eating and implement stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises. In one small study, for example, participants with the greatest reduction in stress lost the most belly fat.

Learn to pay attention to your sensations of hunger, fullness, and taste satisfaction and use it as a guide for limiting food intake and reducing eating in response to emotional or internal cues. Mindful eating means you recognize what you are feeling before you eat, so you make wise food choices.

Don't keep high fat, sugary foods in your home where they are readily accessible. Exercise, get a good night sleep, and cultivate a strong social support network. These lifestyle changes will help you manage stress and make you less likely to overeat when you do feel stressed.


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Norris, Jeffrey. "Stress Reduction and Mindful Eating Curb Weight Gain Among Overweight Women." University of California, San Francisco. Web. 7 December 2011.

Daubenmier, Jennifer, Kristeller, Jean, Hecht, Frederick M., Maninger, Nicole, Kuwata, Margaret, Jhaveri, Kinnari, Lustig, Robert H., Kemeny, Margaret, Karan, Lori, and Epel, Elissa. "Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study." Journal of Obesity 2011. Web.

Harvard Health Newsletters. "Stress and overeating." Web. 1 September 2011.,L0911d

Mercola, Joseph, MD. "12 Compelling Reasons to Ditch Stress from Your Life." Web. 20 June 2009.

Sardinha, Aline, and Nardi, Antonio E. "The Role of Anxiety in Metabolic Syndrome." Expert Review of Endocrinology and Metabolism 7(1) (2012): 63-71. Web. 28 December 2011.