Worried you might be stress eating? 4 simple ways to spot the warning signs

Learn how to break the cycle of emotional hunger with help from top experts

Stress eating: A woman eating a bowl of pasta
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Did you know? Stress eating affects around 46% of Brits, with studies from the Mental Health Foundation and YouGov finding that stressful work and home situations are the first to trigger overeating. 

It likely comes as no surprise that women are more likely than men to experience emotionally triggered eating at some point - and for some, this torturous routine can become part of daily life.

It's no wonder, really - it's been a stressful few years, what with the pandemic, war in Ukraine, and cost of living crisis, too. 

Yet know this - if stress eating is impacting your day-to-day life and mental health, there is a way out of it. 

In her book, How To Feel Differently About Food, therapist Sally Baker argues that stress eating is finally recognised for the complex issue it is. "Government health guidelines finally acknowledge both emotional hunger and physical hunger, which is vital when it comes to changing nutritional and behavioural habits," she says. "We know what we’re meant to be eating, so the reasons we don’t do it need to be tackled."

Clinical psychologist Dr Mark Winwood agrees, adding: "When we stress eat, our hunger is never fully satiated. This hyper response to food suggests a stronger emotional connection than is healthy."

Sound familiar to you and want to know how to break the cycle? The key to transforming your relationship with food is identifying what type of eater you are and similarly, your emotional triggers. Keep scrolling for expert tips from top therapists and nutrition experts - and don't miss our guides to how to manage stress, the signs of stress, and the best stress apps, while you're here. 

What is stress eating? 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, stress eating describes "the action or habit of eating or overeating as a means of relieving stress or anxiety, rather than from hunger."

Think about it - have you ever reached for a snack during a particularly busy work day, or grabbed chocolate after a fight with your other half? By definition, that's stress eating. 

That said, it's important not to confuse stress eating with honouring your hunger. Even on days when you've eaten three nutrient-dense meals and a few snacks, you might still crave chocolate or crisps - that's called being human.

The main differentiating factor, as explained below, is reaching for food from a place of stress or emotion or feeling like you can't stop - in other words, using it as a coping mechanism. 

How to identify the signs of stress eating

As above, the main way experts reckon you can stop mindlessly eating is by identifying what your emotional triggers are. 

The four triggers below can all lead to stress eating. Which do you think might be impacting you? 

1. You feel anxious or angry

The definition? Anxiety or anger can often lead to stress eating. Work deadline approaching? You chomp through it. Fight with your partner? There’s a bag of Doritos for that. Any situation that feels like an emotional rollercoaster where you use food to calm yourself? Yep, that's stress eating.

The craving? "Anxious eating can be traced back to childhood," says Baker. "This is why stress eaters tend to veer more towards childhood foods like chocolate and crisps." 

Nutritionist Alex Jamieson, author of The Crave Cast podcast, agrees. "As women, we often feel unsafe expressing anger or frustration for fear of being badly labelled. Often, we take aggression out on crunchy foods instead."

Crisps top the list of foods for anxious, angry types. Often, you overproduce cortisol as a result of stress, resulting in salt cravings to gain adrenal balance. High-calorie foods also give a "happy hormone" dopamine hit. "Then we associate that food with “managing” stress and it creates a neurological pathway that’s hard to break," explains Dr Winwood.

What to do? Baker says the first step is to identify the intensity of the craving. Drink a glass of water, and if you're still hungry or feel tense, you might be erring towards stress eating. Similarly, if you believe you must have the item you’re craving, there's likely emotion and anxiety attached to the need to eat. 

Jamieson advises crunching on carrot sticks to get that satiating angry crunch you’re craving or hitting the gym for some kind of martial arts-based exercise, which works off some of your anxiety and frustration.

This is opposed to genuine hunger, where your stomach rumbles (which of course you should honour). 

2. You feel that things aren't "perfect"

The definition? "Perfectionists often have an all-or-nothing approach to life which sometimes means fad diets," says registered dietician and emotional eating expert Hala El-Shafie. Often, these kinds of stress eaters have often lost touch with their own internal hunger cues and instead focus on restrictive diets and rules.

The cravings? "You'll likely crave dairy foods, like cheese and cream," says Baker. "This often happens when you follow a very low-fat diets, as your brain can become deprived of essential nutrients like vitamin A, found in full-fat yoghurt and butter."

What to do? There’s a self-critical element to perfectionist eating that comes from childhood, explains Dr Winwood. "Most often the critical voice prompting a “binge” session is an adult from our childhoods, like a parent or teacher scolding us. Try to work out whose voice it is – is it male or female? – and why it makes you feel so bad,” he says. 

Watch your dialogue around food, too, adds El-Shafie. "Using the words “good” and “bad” to describe yourself and the foods you eat is part of the all-or-nothing mindset you should be trying to escape." Nobody eats nutrient-dense foods 100 per cent of the time – cut yourself some slack and aim for a balanced, healthy, 80/20 lifestyle.

3. You feel emotional

The definition? Sometimes, stress eating happens when you're sad, but also when you're happy, too. This kind of stress eating reflects chaos - emotionally and when it comes to your diet. You may feel out of control a lot of the time, too.

The cravings? Carbohydrates, largely. "They produce serotonin, a hormone which boosts your mood and has a calming effect," says Baker. That said, when there’s an excess of serotonin in response to stress, it can make your mood swing from high to low, then you’re back reaching for carbs to perk you up.

What to do? "Look out for feelings of guilt when you’re eating – a sign it could be triggered by a sense of comfort or reward," says Baker. Similarly, they advise making a list of five non-food rewards you can give yourself, and keep the list visible – in your bag or on the fridge. 

"You need to break the cycle of food as comfort, but it takes time," says El-Shafie. Take baby steps, advises Baker. Seeing a qualified professional - whether that's a nutritionist or therapist - will certainly help with this one. 

4. You feel sleep deprived

The definition? You’re always sleep-deprived and have become a master of existing on six hours sleep. You graze all day on caffeine and sugar to keep you going, which then keeps you awake at night. You’re on autopilot and rarely have the energy to recognise the emotional triggers behind your stress eating.

The cravings? "Even one night of poor sleep can cause a cascade of hormonal imbalance that leads to sugar and caffeine reliance," says Jamieson. "Lack of sleep upsets insulin levels, resulting in spikes and crashes of blood sugar."

Since your brain is the top consumer of glucose in the body, you’ll then crave more sugar and caffeine to get through the day and focus. "If you're sleep-deprived, you don’t produce as much leptin in our fat cells overnight. That’s the hormone that tells your brain you're full. Studies have shown we consume around 300 more calories a day following bad sleep," says Dr Winwood.

What to do? Understand why you behave the way you do. "You’re ruled by subconscious snacking and crashing," says Baker. "Keep a food diary to log the strength of your hunger from one to ten, and try to stop mindless grazing." Instead, aim for genuine hunger of eight or above before you eat. 

Also worth trying: write down whatever comes into your mind the moment you reach for a snack. "Repeat it each time you have a craving to understand what’s motivating your eating. Before long you start doing that instinctively," advises Baker.

Really struggling to drift off to sleep? Our edits of the best pillow sprays and best silk pillowcases might help.

With contributions from
  • Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor