7 Ways to Stop Stress Eating

February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We'll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.

It's 10 o'clock on a weekday night and the things you have to do are quickly piling up. What's probably on your mind? Food, of all things. And you're not even that hungry!

We've all been there and done that. College can be stressful, and one way collegiettes try to let out some stress is to stress eat. Unfortunately, your body won't be too happy about all that unnecessary food. Luckily, Her Campus is here to help you conquer your cravings. Check out these seven tips to avoid stress eating!


1. Figure out your stress-eating patterns

The annoying thing about stress eating is that a lot of the time, you don't even realize you're doing it! So it's useful to pay attention to when and where you tend to stress eat. If you notice any patterns, be on alert when you're in similar situations.

The first step is to identify your personal triggers. Is there a specific place or situation (like social gatherings or study sessions) that makes you reach for food? Do stress or boredom make you turn to food for emotional relief? Do you eat to suppress uncomfortable emotions like anger, anxiety or shame?  To identify these patterns, try keeping track of the times you want to overeat with a food-and-mood diary. Every time you reach for comfort food, ask yourself what triggered it.

"The only way to really see what our patterns are is to be able to be internally calm enough to watch them happen rather than being in the middle of acting them out," says yoga and meditation instructor Annie Mahon. "We have to learn how to take a pause so that we can decide how to best handle a moment of stress instead of just doing what we always do, which is often unhealthy."

Once you’ve identified your patterns and triggers, you can be more mindful in these situations so you can minimize the temptation to use food as a way of coping with stress and other emotions. If you’re more prone to stress eat when you’re studying alone in your room, go to the library or a café or get a group of study buddies together.


2. Ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?"

Every time you reach for food, ask yourself how physically hungry you are on a scale from one to 10. Six to 10 means you're probably physically hungry, but any low numbers should raise a red flag. Unlike physical hunger, emotional hunger comes on suddenly, causes cravings for specific comfort foods, isn't located in the stomach and often leads to mindless eating and post-consumption feelings of guilt.

UCLA sophomore Iris Goldsztajn uses a similar technique to differentiate between wanting to stress eat and actually being hungry. "I anticipate that I'm going to want to [stress eat], so that I can recognize it and talk myself out of it," Iris says. "Then, when I feel like stress eating, I ask myself if I'm actually hungry. If I'm not, I have a ... cup of tea to trick myself. If I am hungry, I think about it first and measure out a healthy snack beforehand, because if you just eat out of the pack, you know you're going to finish it."

The best time to eat is when your stomach feels fairly empty but not hurting with hunger pangs. By eating before you feel signals like irritability and light-headedness, you'll be able to ward off those stress-eating habits!


3. Choose your foods wisely

So you're in the middle of studying, and suddenly, you just really need that sugar fix. What's a girl to do? Probably grab the bag of gummy bears or cookies on her desk and begin snacking... and snacking... and snacking.

"Don't fall into the sugar or ‘comfort-food’ trap to assuage stress," says nutrition specialist Jason Boehm. "Do your best, but don't get bogged down with the [stress]. You will get through this!" 

If you really have to eat, try going for some fruit instead of munching on extra-sugary sweets. "I remind myself to eat healthy because 'empty calories' like chips and cookies don't give your brain the fuel it needs to get through studying," Iris says. Mandarin oranges are low in calories, will satisfy your sweet tooth and will keep your hands busy. Peeling the orange and smelling the scent can also be calming on those frazzled nerves, while the vitamin C in the fruit will help strengthen your body's immune system in times of stress.

Craving something salty and crunchy? Try keeping some nuts and seeds around. Pistachios are are packed with fiber and healthy fats. They also regulate your blood sugar, so you won't experience the dreaded crash after a sugar high like you would with fatty, sugary foods. However, it’s easy to overdo it with nuts, so prevent that by measuring out quarter-cup servings into Ziploc baggies instead of snacking straight from a big bag.

An even more foolproof plan is to simply get rid of all the food that you normally can't resist. Have a lot of sweets in your room? Give them to a friend. Tempted by snacks from the vending machines in the library? Instead of bringing money with you, try bringing your own healthier snacks.

"Not keeping junk food around is a great strategy because it gives us that moment of pause between reaction (I'm stressed, need something to eat) and acting out (eating the candy or chips)," Mahon says. "If you have that moment of pause, and you have a little bit of a mindfulness practice, you might be able to decide to do something different, like a sun salutation, going for a walk or taking a short nap instead."


4. Take a breath

Studying can get a bit overwhelming at times, and a study break can be the most effective way to reenergize. "Students can set aside even five minutes a day to sit still and follow their breathing," Mahon says. "Every time their mind wanders, they bring their mind gently back to the feeling of breathing in and breathing out."

A quick breathing exercise is a great, healthy way to clear your mind. By slowing down your breath, you can trick your body into thinking that you're going to sleep, which will cause your body to relax. Try closing your eyes, slowly breathing in and out and repeating your breaths 10 times. You'll be calm in no time!


5. Have a spot of tea

There's nothing like a warm cup of tea to calm exam nerves. In fact, black tea is known to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can cause weight gain.

"Drinking certain calming herbal teas can be helpful … green teas or other caffeinated teas would not be calming, but might help you focus more on your work," Mahon says. "Feeling the warm cup in your two hands and then sensing the smell and taste of the tea as you prepare and drink it is another way to practice coming back to the present moment."

Take a break from multitasking and throw in some deep breathing exercises while you're at it to lower your cortisol levels.


6. Exercise

Physical activity really does wonders! It lifts your mood, generates energy and reduces stress. Walking is especially good for conquering stress eating because you’ll have some time to work through your problems and practice moving meditation. Exercise can also help you refocus your mind on your health goals. After you've gone on a run, you'll probably feel less likely to undo your efforts with cake!

"My suggestion for a study break would involve movement as well as breathing because studying is such a sedentary activity," Mahon says. "I would do walking meditation (walking while paying full attention to your steps and your breathing) or yoga or even cranking the tunes and dancing around your room. They can also use walking meditation as they walk between exams and studying to help bring them back to the present moment." 


7. Catch some z’s

On a typical day in college, it's totally normal to see collegiettes working in libraries into the wee hours of morning. Unfortunately, four hours doesn't exactly count as getting enough sleep, and that may actually be contributing to your stress eating.

Boehm believes that getting enough sleep and exercise during finals period is crucial to preventing stress eating. "You feel better and think better with enough sleep and exercise," Boehm says. "And when you're not hungry, you're less likely to reach for sugary junk foods."

Lack of sleep is directly linked to stress, overeating and weight gain. Feeling tired can increase your stress levels. Also, your levels of the hormone ghrelin, which affects when you feel hungry, go up when you don't get enough sleep, which makes it harder for you to satisfy your food cravings and causes you to keep eating. A solid eight hours of sleep every night will do wonders!


The next time you find yourself reaching for some junk food to snack on while studying, think twice about your stress-eating habits. With these tips, you can say goodbye to all those seemingly self-emptying bags of gummy bears and boxes of cookies and hello to conquering your cravings!  

Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you're looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.