20/06/2016 3:45 PM AEST | Updated 16/07/2016 5:38 AM AEST

Do You Stress Eat? Here's What You Can Do About It

Step 1: Identify the stress source.

Stress eating can make stress levels even worse.

Stress isn't something just a few of us experience. In 2015, 35 percent of Australians reported having a significant level of distress in their lives, and anxiety symptoms were the highest they've been in five years.

Whatever the reason -- whether it's work, family or financial issues -- over time, stress can take a toll on our mental and physical wellbeing. It can also affect the way we eat.

Stress eating is something many people experience and while it may help us feel better in the short term, it's not addressing the problem and can end up making us feel worse.

"I think there's a couple of reasons why we stress eat," Chloe McLeod, accredited practising dietitian, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Often when you're stressed you don't sleep as well, and when you're tired your body actually releases more of the hormones that make you feel hungry, even if you're not actually hungry.

Look at what's triggering the stress and if there's anything that can be done to minimise it in the first place.

"Also, when you're tired you start looking for foods that are going to keep you more awake -- maybe lollies or something else that will give you a boost of energy to help with getting you through that stressful period."

People might stress eat simply because they want some comfort -- for example, from your favourite chocolate brownie. However, stress eating isn't limited to just junk food.

"Sometimes stress eating can help us feel good initially -- it tastes good and helps us to feel that little bit better -- and it can distract you from the problem at hand," McLeod said. "Perhaps it's not even unhealthy foods, maybe you're just overeating on healthy things, as well."

Unfortunately, stress eating doesn't break the stress cycle you may be in and can actually make us feel worse in the long run.

"Initially it might help us to feel better, but then once you're done you might feel, 'well, I'm still stressed and now I feel like crap,'" McLeod told HuffPost Australia.

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Stress eating can be indicative of a larger, more chronic stress problem.

"If stress eating has been happening for a little while that's when issues like weight gain arise. Your clothes might start getting a bit tight, and maybe you start to feel more stressed because you know you're stressed, you know there's a risk you will stress eat and gain weight, and then this compels the stress further."

According to McLeod, making poor food choices or overeating when we're stressed can also result in poorer general health.

"For example, it can lead to compromised immune health, weight gain or poorer management of health conditions such as cholesterol or blood sugar levels.

"It can be a really difficult cycle to get out of unfortunately."

As soon as you feel you are not coping with an increase in stress, it's a good idea to speak to a health professional.

To help manage and avoid stress eating specifically, Chloe recommends the following tips.


1. Identify the stress

"Look at what's triggering the stress and if there's anything that can be done to minimise it in the first place," McLeod told HuffPost Australia.

Constantly busy as we are, it can be easy to overlook the signs of high levels of stress. Here's what to look out for:

  • headaches and migraines
  • other aches and pains
  • sleep disturbance
  • anxiety
  • anger and irritability
  • fatigue
  • upset stomach or diarrhea
  • high blood pressure
  • weakened immune system
  • muscle tension
  • change in sex drive
  • depression
  • feeling moody and emotional

2. Avoid using food as a distraction

"Do your best to avoid using food for comfort and try something else. Call your mum, go for a walk and maybe try meditation or deep breathing because those are both helpful strategies which can help to reduce stress levels," McLeod said.

"Also remind yourself that, while you might feel better to start with, in half an hour or so you'll actually end up feeling worse. Ask yourself if it is going to be worth it for you."

Taking a leisurely walk may help reduce stress symptoms and food cravings.

3. Drink tea

"One of my favourite strategies is drinking a cup of tea. You're still having something but often a herbal tea can be quite calming and relaxing."

You can take this as an opportunity to step away from your desk if you're at work, or to unwind with a book if you're at home.

4. Aim for consistent sleep

We all know how a bad night's sleep can affect our concentration and ability to deal with everyday tasks. To help decrease stress levels and stress eating, aim for at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

"Aim for a good night's sleep. This can really help prevent that feeling of needing to stress eat," McLeod said.

5. Eat well

"If we're eating well it helps us to feel better and supports our immune system, as well as our ability to be more productive," McLeod said. "By fuelling your body well, you're going to be able to get through the situation you're in more effectively and better."

Fill up on fruit and veggies, whole grains, healthy fats (nuts, avocado and oily fish) and lean meat or meat alternative.

Increase your intake of fruit and veggies to help boost your immune system.

"When feeling stressed and have the urge to stress eat, aside from tea, I also recommend having a banana. Because it's got that texture and is sweet and filling, it can often help with staving off that unhealthy craving," McLeod said.

"Have something which is comforting for you but also isn't something which you're prone to overeating.

"Avoid things like alcohol, excess caffeine and foods that are highly processed and high in salt, sugar and unhealthy fats."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114. For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.