By now most, if not all, of us know that mental stress can have an effect on our physical health. It affects many different areas of our physical health, from changes in blood pressure to teeth grinding and breakouts. It can even have an effect on our diet — and it often does.

It is important to remember that we all have different responses to stress. When we’re stressed, people tend to go either one of two ways — over-eat or under-eat. While traditionally we think of stress causing us to over-eat, it can have the opposite effect for some people.


Whether physical or mental, stress has many effects on our hormones, which results in many physical impacts, including changes in our diet.

Leptin and Ghrelin

Leptin and ghrelin are what are known as “hunger hormones”. They are the hormones that control our appetite and satiety. These hormone levels change naturally throughout the day to control our eating, telling us when it is time to eat and when it is time to stop.

Leptin is an appetite suppressor. This means it tells our brain that we have enough stored energy in our body that we don’t need to eat more food. It is responsible for giving us that “full” feeling when we’re eating. On the other hand, ghrelin is our appetite inducer. This means that it signals to our brain that we are hunger and should probably find something to eat.

The levels of these hormones can be impacted by many factors including, when we last ate, exercise, how much sleep we’ve been getting and even stress. Stress can influence these hormones, causing them to go a little haywire and contribute to our stress eating patterns.

Stress Hormones 

The “hunger hormones” aren’t the only hormones responsible for regulating our hunger and when we eat. Stress-related hormones also impact our eating habits. Stress causes our bodies to release hormones such as corticotropin-releasing hormone, epinephrine (adrenaline), and cortisol.

The hormones, corticotropin-releasing hormone and epinephrine, are released as short-term responses to stress. These hormones curb appetite and limit our eating. However, continuous stress leads to an increased release of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone associated with increased motivation and appetite. Rising levels of cortisol contribute to our increasing cravings and appetite.

So, prolonged stress means we get more cravings, right? Not exactly.

External Factors 

Although our hormones may suggest that “stress → eating more” it is not that straight forward. External factors, such as our focus on a project deadline or availability of food, can also play a role in our eating response to stress. While some people over-eat when stressed, others forget to eat for long stretches of time.


In addition to affecting our cravings (or lack of) for food, stress also affects our metabolism. Although short-term stress is frequently associated with weight loss, studies show this is primarily from appetite suppression rather than changes in metabolism.

Some studies indicate prolonged stress may slow down our metabolism, causing us to burn fewer calories in a day. These studies go on to suggest that long-term stress can lead to an 11 lb weight increase in a year (COVID weight, anyone?).

Tips for Getting a Grip on Stress Eating

Stress eating of any kind may make us feel out of control. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many different approaches available to help us manage our stress eating.

Stress management

This one goes right to the source. Incorporating stress-relief habits into our routines when we’re stressed can do us a big favour. Managing our stress not only helps reduce our stress eating, but can help us feel better overall. These can include:

    • Exercise
    • Getting regular sleep
    • Yoga or meditation
    • Get outside (even if its just for a short walk)
    • Making time for hobbies you enjoy
Consider snack locations and portions

Getting up every time we’re craving a snack can get a bit annoying (and inconvenient). But you can use this to your advantage. If you’re a stress eater, consider moving your snacks out of reach or to another room. Moving snacks further away or portioning them out will help reduce how often you are snacking and makes you more conscious of how often you get up to snack.

For the under-eaters out there, bring a snack with you to your desk. That way you do not have the inconvenience as an excuse for not eating.

Prepare healthy snacks

Including healthy snacks that are packed with nutrients will help make sure you’re still meeting adequate daily intakes, while also removing any food guilt. Additionally, snacks such as fruits and vegetables contain nutrients such as fibre that help control our hunger.

Regular meals

Whether you are an over-eater or an under-eater, it is important to have regular, well-balanced meals. Eating a balanced meal at regular intervals can help keep your hunger hormones in check & curb your all-day snacking. Additionally, eating regular meals helps make sure you have both the energy and nutrients you need to stay healthy and tackle your stress.

Book a FREE Discovery Call

Does your stress have you feeling out of control around food? Working with a Registered Dietitian can help you understand your cravings and work with you to create a personalized nutrition plan! Book your FREE discovery call today to get started.