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Healthy Woman

Nutrition & Fitness

Tips to Manage Stress Eating

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This article is written by Erin Gager, R.D., L.D.N., a dietitian at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Have you ever felt like eating a piece of chocolate cake or a bag of chips after a stressful day at work? If so, you’re not alone. Studies show that stressful events activate systems associated with metabolism, cognition and reward.

What does this mean for your waistline? It means that the candy bar you are reaching for after a stressful event (or a series of stressful events) may be driven by a combination of physiological and psychological factors.  

Johns Hopkins research nutritionist Erin Gager headshotErin Gager, R.D., L.D.N.

How does stress affect your appetite?

Studies show that women with high chronic stress levels tend to engage in emotional eating. In addition to psychological responses to stress, there may also be physiological responses. During a stressful event, the body releases cortisol, a hormone that helps the body protect itself. However, if cortisol levels are elevated for a prolonged period of time, such as during repeated and constant stressors, this can lead to increased food consumption, fat storage and weight gain.

Does timing matter?

According to a study from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, timing may play a role in appetite and gut hormone responses to meal and stress challenges. (A challenge is used in research studies to see how people react to different foods or stress factors.) This study showed that the “afternoon/evening may be a high-risk period for overeating, particularly when paired with stress exposure, and for those with binge eating.” This means that your commute home or evening meal may be a time period when you have a greater likelihood to eat more than you should.

To help curb this increased chance, pay attention to snacking habits after a long day of work to help prevent weight gain. Try preparing snacks in advance to control portion size or even using a food journal to track what you eat, how much of it and when.

How can you manage stress eating?

  1. Practice mindful eating. Know that your craving may be a result of a stressful event, and then ask yourself, are you truly hungry? Wait a few minutes before eating.
  2. Find healthier options. If you still feel the need for a snack, consider a lower-calorie, lower-fat option than what you may have previously chosen. Here are some healthy snacks I enjoy:
    • Something sweet: Cut up an apple and spread some nut butter on it. The combination of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fat should help curb your appetite and satisfy your need for a sweet.
    • Something savory: Consider adding hummus to deviled eggs for a lower-calorie, high-protein snack option.
  3. Watch portion size. Instead of taking the whole box with you, put a snack-size amount on a plate. Check the package to see what one serving size is, and try to stick to that.

It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor or a dietitian when you make changes to your diet.

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