Stressful Eating Can Last a Lifetime

 Do you turn to certain foods to help you through stressful situations? If so, you are not alone, but you’re definitely hanging with the wrong crowd. Those who eat whenever their stress level rises can become so dependent on the stress-food fix they may end up reaching for a sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies every time they’re stuck in traffic. Not a good habit to form if you ever plan on driving anywhere during normal business hours, weekends or holidays. So sit back, relax and read on to see how you can develop new coping skills before the normal stresses of everyday life rob you of your health and pack on excess pounds.

There is no escaping stress. In fact, trying to plot your every move in the hope of avoiding stress will only lead to more. You may also find your stress level rising when you realize that not everyone feels the same way about stress as you do. For example, one woman’s stressful final exam schedule is another’s chance to scarf up all the cardboard boxes on campus and move home before the end-of-term rush.

The most important thing to understand about stress is that it is not defined by any particular situation, like having your computer crash while you’re writing your thesis, or an unfortunate set of circumstances, like having your thesis due on the same day you must entertain your fiancé’s family while your air conditioner is on the fritz. Stress is what we feel when we perceive an insurmountable gap between a given situation and our means of dealing with it. In short, stress is the sensation that arises when you run out of coping mechanisms.

Stress is Normal
Since a certain amount of stress is considered normal, the most we can hope for is learning to manage it effectively – one day at a time, event by event. But if we become overwhelmed by stress and give in to feelings of despair when we believe there will never be enough time/money/brain power/sunshine – whatever – to relieve our discomfort, then we are doomed to feel the crushing weight of it over and over again. Those who turn to food when experiencing stress can really max out their misery index.

First of all, eating does not make the stress-inducing problems go away. The only stress that food can relieve is the stress of hunger. Second, if you eat and drink excessively for days due to prolonged stress, like during finals, your health will decline while your weight increases. And lastly, if the indulgence makes you feel guilty, that can lead to more stress, and the entire cycle repeats itself.

Learning to Cope
Learning to control stress is a lot like learning to budget your money and manage your time. It requires making difficult choices and adjusting your priorities. But good coping skills can be honed day in and day out when faced with the annoyances of everyday life, such as being stuck on a slow check-out line when you’re in a hurry or getting caught in the rain without an umbrella when wearing your suede jacket. Eventually, your coping skills will become reflexes that fall into place exactly when you need them to pull you through any stressful situation.

If you realize you’ve been self-medicating your feelings of stress with food, it’s time for a new prescription. Select something from this list or come up with your own remedy that will provide a little nurturing while you figure out how to solve the problem that is causing your stress.


  • Personal pampering – pedicure, facial, bubble bath 
  • Calming Atmosphere – aromatherapy, candles, incense 
  • Emotional escape – listen to music, meditate, pray
  • Express yourself – write a blog, call a friend, keep a journal
  • Physical relief – exercise, yoga, sex

The UChic Health & Nutrition question for March 2007 was, “What foods do you turn to when under stress?” The responses received fell into two broad dichotomies, Generic VS Branded Foods and Healthy VS Indulgent Foods.

All of the submissions suggested that the writers had learned to connect very particular foods or beverages with their feelings of stress. This is especially evident for branded foods, such as Nestle® Flipz™ chocolate coated pretzels, where the reader admitted that only the known and familiar will do. It is also apparent that some people have tried to get around the danger of mindless eating when feeling stressed by choosing something healthy, such as a fruit smoothie or hummus and chips.

The only deception here is that those healthier choices still contain calories that can add up when you make a habit of eating every time the ATM is out of cash and your car is out of gas. The most commonly mentioned generic food choice readers said they turn to when stressed out was ice cream, while one of the more specific branded food choices was Honey-Nut Cheerios. The preferred healthy selections included pre-packaged sushi and an apple with peanut butter, while one of the more indulgent favorites was unbaked frozen cookie dough!


Editor’s Note: With finals coming up soon, you might find yourself reaching for potato chips, pizza or candy bars to nosh on while cramming for your exams. Robyn Flipse wants to know: What sources do you turn to for accurate nutrition and diet information?

Email us at with the subject line “Nutrition Info.” The responses received will inform next month’s Health and Nutrition column.

And if you have your own health-related question for Robyn, send her your query at our Ask the Experts form.

Robyn Flipse, MS, RD Author, Fighting the Freshman Fifteen Available at

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