The idea of "stress eating" is not new, and it's understandable. When we're stressed, we crave familiar, comforting things to soothe ourselves, and many of us turn to food for that quick comforting feeling. From the early months of the coronavirus pandemic through the years that have followed, many people have noticed an uptick in their stress levels, and a corresponding upward trajectory of their weight. 

How stress can lead to weight gain

When we are stressed, our bodies create more of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is partly responsible for how our body responds to stress or danger, acts as an internal alarm clock for waking up and going to sleep, helps to control blood pressure and glucose metabolism, and can reduce inflammation. Some medications use cortisol, known as "hydrocortisone," to help reduce inflammation topically or in the body—such as over-the-counter creams to help relieve swelling and itching from bug bites. Too much or too little cortisol can contribute to certain health conditions, including

  • changes in weight (both gaining or losing)
  • skin conditions
  • muscle weakness
  • anxiety or depression
  • heart disease

When we feel stressed—as many of us have for the last few years—our bodies can tip toward releasing too much cortisol, leading to weight gain, acne, trouble sleeping, headaches, and digestive problems. The production of cortisol can also trigger your body to release extra insulin, and together these two hormones can lead your body to storing extra fat around the abdomen. Additionally, for many people, eating comforting foods is one way we respond to stress. The problem is that those foods tend to be less nutritionally valuable for our bodies and contain more calories than our body can expend. 

How we manage stress can help us manage our weight

While no one can ever completely avoid stress, we can practice managing how we respond to stress. Many of the tools that are available to help reduce stress can also help with weight gain and physical health. For example, one thing you can do when you're feeling stressed is to take a walk. It doesn't have to be a long or intense workout—a quick ten minutes around the block or the office is good enough—but walking improves our blood flow and makes us breathe more deeply. This reduces the amount of stress we feel, lowers the amount of cortisol our body produces in a given time, and helps us to not turn to foods that contribute to weight gain.

If it's difficult for you to leave your office for a quick movement break, you can also do exercises at your desk or an empty conference room to achieve a similar effect. As an added bonus, getting even ten minutes of walking in throughout the day will have benefits for your cardiovascular health

Some other ideas for managing stress in our daily lives include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness-based stress reduction or other types of meditation, writing in a journal, playing soothing music, reading, taking up a hobby (such as gardening), practicing yoga, or talking with a trusted friend or mental health professional about your feelings.

Managing a stress eating response

Of course it's easy to identify ways to manage our stress, but maybe less easy to change a behavioral pattern of emotional eating. One of the first things to do to change a behavior is to change the environment. Creating an office or home environment that supports your health goals can help you change behaviors.

Make healthy meals and snacks easily accessible. Keep less healthy foods out of sight or even out of the home. To make healthy foods visible and easy to grab:

  • cut up fruits and veggies and store in clear containers
  • pre-pack snack size bags or small containers with whole grain crackers, tortilla chips or nuts to avoid mindlessly eating out of packages
  • if you have access to a fridge at work, pack a healthy lunch with Greek yogurt, pre-measured or single serve hummus or guacamole, hard boiled eggs, cheese sticks and prepped produce
  • make a soup or stew on Sunday for quick lunches or dinner
  • prep salad fixings ahead of time including veggies, protein and dressing for a quick meal

Focus on nutritious options

When it comes to diet, balance is important, not perfection. Focus on eating nourishing foods most of the time and allow yourself intentional splurges. It’s best to bring a small quantity of a favorite splurge food home to enjoy a right-sized portion. For example, indulge in a single cupcake rather than bringing home a whole cake, share a small order of fries or share a small pizza. You can still have your comfort foods from time to time, or look for ways to make them at home with healthier swaps.

Having foods readily available can help cut down on the impulse eating that often comes with feelings of stress. Here are some ideas of shelf stable, nutrient dense foods that you can have on hand for a quick bite or more nutrient dense meal. 

  • Baby spinach. Use in frittata, salads, on pizza, in sandwiches, sauté with garlic, as a base for pesto or freeze before it spoils and use in soups, stews, pasta dishes or smoothies.
  • Frozen riced cauliflower. Use in frittata or egg muffins, soups, or stews, for pizza crust or in casseroles (replace half of the regular rice with riced cauliflower and use half the cheese for an upgraded casserole). Use in place of rice or do half rice and half riced cauliflower to increase veggies.
  • Frozen vegetables. Add to soups, stews, casseroles, or pasta dishes for a nutrient boost or use as a quick side.
  • Winter squashes (acorn, butternut). Roast for a quick side, stuff, or use in soups, stews, or curries.
  • Frozen berries and cherries. Add to oatmeal, pancakes, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or unsweetened applesauce.
  • Canned or dry beans. Add to casseroles, soups, stews, salads or puree a can of beans and use it to thicken and add creaminess to soups and stews without using heavy cream.
  • Plain Rolled Oats. Make a quick breakfast (hot, overnight oats or low sugar granola) or grind in a food processor or blender to make flour for pancakes, baked goods, veggie burgers, breading, etc.
  • Eggs. Hard boil for snacks, to top salad or in a sandwich. Use in a frittata or in egg muffins with veggies for a quick breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Getting help for stress and your weight

If your feelings of stress seem to be too much to manage on your own, there is help available. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to connect with the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline. If you're not in crisis mode but need someone to talk to, a licensed mental health worker can help you identify and tailor ways to manage stress to your unique needs. 

For help reaching a healthy weight, an obesity medicine specialist can work with you to determine what options might work best for you. Some of these options include FDA-approved weight loss medications, behavioral changes, or metabolic bariatric surgery for weight loss. 

Kristy Dalrymple, PhD

Dr. Kristy Dalrymple is a licensed clinical psychologist, associate director of the outpatient psychiatry practice at Rhode Island Hospital, and director of adult psychology at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals.