How to Conquer Stress Eating

Break your coping mechanism that sends you straight to the fridge.

Your job, family commitments and other stresses collide into a great big bundle of stress. Forty-three percent of Americans say stress causes them to either overeat or choose unhealthy foods, according to a poll done by the American Psychological Association. “Food and the act of eating is soothing for most people,” says Joyce Corsica, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Clinical and Health Psychologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Why does food become our security blanket when life gets tough? It could be for a variety of factors, Corsica says. “The biochemical effects of the food (for example, carbohydrates are relaxing for most people), or because people get pleasure from eating and/or from eating highly palatable foods. They taste good and that feels good. There is also the fact that eating can distract you from stress; you’re essentially getting a little time out. And, finally, the sense of fullness or satiety can also be pleasurable. It is important to know that stress-eating can become a habit very quickly, because each of these forces is very powerful.”

Luckily, you can control these factors. Corsica and her colleagues tested three approaches: a modified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, a cognitive-behavioral treatment that they developed especially for stress eating for this study, and a treatment that was a combination of the other two. While all of the treatments lessen stress-eating, they concluded that the combination treatment produced slightly better results. “The combination yielded more reduction in stress eating and, interestingly enough, more weight loss. We think it packed a one-two punch,” Corsica says of the findings.

And here is why: Learning mindfulness strategies helps to increase awareness of one’s own emotional states. At the same time, the cognitive-behavioral aspect of the intervention helped people develop specific skills for managing their response to stress. “They learned how to maintain good nutrition, choose other distracters, problem-solve, use cognitive restructuring….and the key was, not only did they learn them, but they practiced and refined them under typical conditions of stress in their lives,” she says.

The best part is that anyone can learn these strategies. Corsica recommends the book, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and other MBSR tricks like the ones here. Also, it is important to identify stress management strategies that work for you and master them. (Here are two you might want to try.)

Most importantly, Corsica says try not to feel trapped—as if you can’t cope in any other way but eating. “You may feel as though you are powerless around food. And this can quickly spiral out of control once there is weight gain,” she says. “Our research has shown that there are some great ways to break this cycle.”