If you eat in response to stress, you are not responding to real hunger but instead to a coping mechanism—comfort food.

A study reported in Physiology Behavior found that 73 percent of participants reported eating more sweets and fewer meal-type foods, such as meat, seafood, fruits, and vegetables, during periods of stress.

Whether you overeat or eat poorly during times of stress, it helps to do a little "self-monitoring," and pay attention to your eating habits and the types of foods you eat.

Stress management tactics such as exercise or meditation usually require a long-term plan. But you can start with these tips to help you take control of emotional eating:

  • Maintain a normal eating schedule. Start with a healthy breakfast and eat a meal or a healthy snack every three to four hours. Eat enough to feel satisfied but not stuffed.
  • Don't skip meals. When you skip or delay meals, you become overly hungry and are more likely to overeat and less likely to make healthy food choices.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand and ready to eat. If you start to randomly eat during stressful times, stock up on nutritious snacks such as cut-up raw vegetables, vegetable juice, fresh and dried fruit, whole-grain cereals, reduced-fat cheese sticks, and yogurt.
  • Plan your snacks. Schedule "mini meals" once or twice during the day so that you won't get too hungry. Rather than grabbing a handful of chips or cookies from the store, sit down to a healthier combination of foods such as a dozen grapes and a small container of yogurt sprinkled with cereal.
  • Pay attention to hunger. If it's not your normal meal or snack time but you are reaching for food, ask yourself if it's real hunger or emotional hunger. There are ways to tell: Real hunger comes on gradually, while emotional hunger is usually sudden and intense. Emotional eating involves cravings for specific types of foods as opposed to the combination of foods normally eaten at a meal.
  • Eat slowly and mindfully. Use mealtimes and snack times as rest periods. That way, you'll slow down and focus on your food rather than on the events that are causing you stress.
  • Pay attention to feelings of fullness. If you're eating while stressed, you are more likely to eat when you're not really hungry, and to keep eating even when you're full.
  • Enjoy your favorite foods in moderation. There's no point in denying yourself simple pleasures when you're under stress. Enjoy your favorite comfort foods in reasonable portions and in the context of an otherwise healthy diet.
  • Drink plenty of water. When you go to grab food, grab a cup or bottle of water instead. Use the time while you're drinking water to figure out if you're really hungry or just desire food for comfort.
  • Avoid consuming excess caffeine or energy drinks when you are already feeling over-stimulated.




Oliver, G and Wardle, J; "Perceived Effects of Stress on Food Choice" Physiology & Behavior 1999 66(3)511-515 Web 25 Nov 2011

Purdue University Student Wellness Office: Cut it! Keep it Small; don't eat it all.

Temple University: Emotional Eating: Hunger vs. Stress Web 25 Nov 2011