Stress & Eating Habits: How to Manage Stress & Eat Healthy During the Holidays

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Maria H. Anastasiades, PsyD; Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital

Sticking to a healthy eating plan to lose weight can be challenging, especially during the holidays when our stress levels can be at their highest. The physical changes associated with stress can make us more vulnerable to emotional eating, or eating to cope with feelings. Read on to learn how stress affects our eating habits and tips to help you stay healthy this holiday season.

How stress affects our eating habits

Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, interact with insulin levels and hunger hormones, which can lead to urges to eat high fat, high sugar foods. Additionally, calorically dense foods can activate the brain’s reward system, meaning the brain learns that unhealthy foods actually can reduce negative emotions for a short time.

Because unhealthy foods are widely available during the holidays and activate the brain’s reward system, many people find themselves emotionally eating to cope with stress and negative emotions that can be associated with the holiday season. Eating high fat, high sugar foods can provide relief from stress in the moment but can result in bingeing and even feelings of guilt or shame.

During periods of high stress, we have fewer mental and emotional resources available. This can make it more difficult to make healthy food decisions, especially at the end of a long day. We might end up stress-eating to cope with emotions rather than meeting our physical needs for nourishment with healthy food choices.

Tips For Telling the Difference Between Stress Cravings & Physical Hunger

It can be challenging to know which physical feelings are coming from stress and which are coming from physical hunger. Here are some tips for knowing the difference:

  1. Physical Sensations. There are physical sensations associated with stress cravings and hunger.
    1. Stress Cravings include sensations related to your emotions, such as sadness, emptiness, or nervousness.
    2. Physical hunger includes sensations like stomach grumbling and huger pains.
  2. Think about what you want to eat. If you are craving a specific food, that is usually coming from a stress or emotional craving. If you are willing to eat a range of items that are nutritious, your hunger is most likely physical.
  3. Time of Day. Stress or emotional cravings may occur late at night, during mid afternoon lull, or after a stressful event. Physical hunger occurs several hours from last meal or after physical activity.
  4. Development of Cravings. Stress cravings develop suddenly, seem to stick around and requires distraction to ignore. Physical hunger builds slowly and will pass if ignored.
  5. How you feel after you eat. Acting on stress cravings could result in feelings of guilt or shame. Acting on physical hunger results in feeling satisfied. Ask yourself before you eat – how will I feel after I eat this?

Coping Stress Cravings During the Holidays

If an urge to eat emotionally arises, try these 3 steps for managing the craving: Delay, Distract and Substitute.

  1. Delay: Try to wait out the craving. Delaying gives you some distance from the craving, meaning you may be less likely to act on impulse in response to the craving. Waiting also helps you tell the difference between physical hunger and a craving to eat emotionally.
  2. Distract: Go for a walk, work on an enjoyable hobby, play a game, read a book, do a mindfulness meditation, spend time with a friend. Distraction will help you wait out the craving with the added benefit of helping you cope with negative emotions.
  3. Substitute: If you decide to act on your craving after delaying and distracting, substitute a healthier snack. This will leave you feeling proud that you made a purposeful, healthy choice while staying on track. Keep healthy snacks on hand at work or at home, like fresh fruit and veggies, so healthier options are available.

The holidays can be a stressful time. Staying positive is not always possible, however that does not mean that your healthy eating habits need to suffer. Follow these tips to help understand why you want to eat and how you can avoid eating during times of great stress.



  1. Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & behavior, 91(4), 449-458.
  2. Dallman, M. F. (2010). Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 21(3), 159-165.
  3. Reid, S. (2018). Help for emotional eating. Monitor on Psychology, 49(10), 92.
  4. Torres, S. J., & Nowson, C. A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition, 23(11-12), 887-894.


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