How Does Stress Affect Binge Eating?

Stress can make your heart pound, your belly ache, and your palms sweat. This kind of pressure can also make it hard for you to control unhealthy food habits like binge eating.

You can learn how to manage stress without turning to food, though. First you need to know about the link between stress and bingeing.

Stress, Binge, Stress

Stress can cause both binge eating disorder and the desire to overeat. It's common for someone with the disorder to use food to deal with tension and other emotions they want to turn off -- including anger, sadness, and boredom.

It can lead to a cycle of bingeing that goes like this:

  • When you're stressed, you eat a lot.
  • After you overeat, you feel bad or worried about weight gain, which makes you more stressed.

Stressful things that might cause you to overeat include:

  • A major life change, such as a move
  • Being bullied
  • Losing a loved one
  • Money issues
  • Problems in your family
  • Trouble at work

About 1 in 4 people who binge eat have another mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How Stress Makes You Eat

Why does a bad day at the office or an ugly breakup make you want to dive headfirst into a box of cookies or a bag of candy? It's because during tough times, your body makes more of a hormone called cortisol, which increases hunger. If you have binge eating disorder, you already have higher levels of this hormone in your body than people without the disorder. That spurs the desire to eat.

Do you tend to feel much better after having sweets or carbs? There's a reason: These foods tell your brain to release a chemical called serotonin, which boosts your mood. That's why cakes, cookies, and French fries are often called "comfort foods" -- but the comforting feelings don't last long. Soon after you eat these treats, your blood sugar will drop (or “crash”), and you'll be tired and shaky.

How to Avoid Bingeing When Stressed

Talk to your doctor if you think you have a problem with overeating. Treatments for binge eating disorder can help you find out what's driving you to overdo it with food. You'll also learn how to change your habits.

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It can help to keep a food diary. Write down when you binge eat and how you feel while you eat. Once you know what triggers you to binge, you can try these healthier ways to handle stress:

  • Exercise. Go for a good walk outside or take an aerobics class. Remember that stress hormone called cortisol? Exercise causes cortisol levels to drop so you don't feel the giant urge to eat. Staying active also keeps your mind off the fridge and pantry. Plus, you'll start to feel better about your body.
  • Meditate. Focus on your breath for a little while. It can ease anxiety and stress. Yoga is a great way to meditate and exercise at the same time. Doing this on a regular basis might help you make more thoughtful choices when it comes to food.
  • Eat healthy "comfort foods." When you feel an urge to eat, turn to foods that can make you feel good without adding fat and calories. For example, choose a baked sweet potato, whole grain pasta with tomato sauce, or beans and brown rice.
  • Get support. When you feel like reaching for the cookie jar, call a friend or relative instead. They can help you when times get tough.

Remember, you don't have to deal with binge eating disorder and stress alone. Find support from specialists like these:

  • A therapist or counselor can help you deal with your emotions in ways other than with food.
  • A nutritionist can help you design a diet that fills you up and makes you feel better about yourself, so you feel less of an urge to eat.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 08, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Adamus-Leach, Heather J. Eating and Weight Disorders, June 2013.

American Psychological Association: "Stress effects on the body."

Harvard Health Publications: "Why Stress Causes People to Overeat."

National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Binge Eating Disorder."

Nemours Foundation: "Emotional Eating."

Office on Women's Health: "Binge Eating Disorder Fact Sheet."

O'Reilly GA. Obesity Reviews, June 2014.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: "How to Eat Right to Reduce Stress."

UpToDate: "Eating Disorders: Overview of epidemiology, diagnosis, and course of illness."

Vancampfort D. Psychiatry Research, October 2014.

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