Skip to content

The Problem with Stress Eating? It Doesn’t Work

OMG, what a rough time this is for all of us. We’re frightened of covid 19, we can’t go to work, we can’t send our kids to school, and we can’t meet up with friends and family. We can’t even turn on the tv to watch sports and chill out. It’s very tough. Many people have written to me to tell me how tight their pants are getting and how disgusted with themselves they are for the way they’re eating and drinking. Maybe I can help. Not that I myself am limiting my diet to just broccoli and fish or anything…

When you’re stressed and worried, as we all are right now, your brain does go to the land of, “What I could really use right now is a nice stalk of celery.” Rather, it saunters over to the land of chocolate, potato chips, ice cream, red wine, white wine, back to chocolate…

Here’s the problem: during this time of profound discomfort,you tell yourself you “deserve” to eat something comforting. And, in the short term, your brain tends to be comforted sugar or fat or salt—or all three. But after that initial soothing, the brain reacts, particularly to a high dose of sugar, by feeling irritable. And wanting more sugar (1). You may feel like a shark tasting blood—you just want more. So you eat more—maybe a lot more.

In our book, The Permanent Weight Loss Plan, we talk about what we call the Comfort Circle of Hell. Here’s what it looks like:

The Comfort Food Circle of Hell

  • I want a cookie.
  • I find the package of cookies that I’d supposedly hidden from myself.
  • I eat a cookie.
  • I want another cookie.
  • I eat another cookie. And another.
  • I feel better. Calmer. Soothed. Then numb. Then irritable.
  • I realize what I have done and feel disgusted with myself.
  • I want to feel better.
  • I eat a cookie . . .

This cycle is the kind of pattern that ends in misery. “Eating your feelings” started as a way to comfort and protect yourself, but it may now have become self-defeating. There may be a better way –  one that does not mean giving up comfort or feeling one that doesn’t blur the line between reward and punishment.

Maybe I can help. Here are some tips that may help you get through this difficult time of isolation – and hopefully will continue to be useful once our world is healthy again:

  1. Plan Ahead

Structure is of particular importance now during this time of anxiety and even chaos. Specifically, with regard to food and structure, I recommend planning ahead. Plan what you’re going to eat at your next meal or snack. Eat that, enjoy every bite, and that’s it.

How many drinks are you going to have today? Same thing – enjoy them, and then you’re done.

To help with this, you may want to make a rule for yourself that unless you’re walking in the kitchen for the express purpose of eating a meal, then just keep walking!

Planning ahead is a strategy that allows you to eat foods you have rationally chosen with respect for your body and a sense of calm pleasure. And couldn’t we all use a little calm pleasure right now?

2. Find Your Non-Food Sources of Comfort

Truesources of comfort may include:

  • Virtual meals, coffees, and dates with friends
  • Listen to it – and, perhaps even better – dance to it
  • Physical exercise. Whatever type you like. If you have a yard or outdoor space you can use, all the better – for most people, outdoor exercise has more mood-enhancing effects (2)
  • Write it all down – the bad andthe good. There’s still a lot of good!
  • Meditation
  • Now’s the time to finally get to all those books you’ve been meaning to read forever
  • Organizing photos

A final word: if you do find yourself over-indulging, be kind to yourself about it. We’re all just doing our best. Whatever “taking care of yourself” looks like, that’s what you should do. Just look for signs that you may need to change what that looks like for you. And keep reminding yourself that you’ll get through this. We’ll do it together.



(1)Mozaffarian D. Food and weight gain: time to end our fear of fat. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 2016; 4(8):633-5.

(2)Turner TL, Stevinson C. Affective outcomes during and after high-intensity intensity exercise in outdoor green and indoor gym settings. Int J Environ Health Res 2017; 27(2):106-16.