Stress and anxiety can affect all aspects of life but perhaps none more profoundly than how anxiety and stress can affect our diets. For many, a stressful day is peppered with trips to the office ‘fridge or convenience store, ending with a big bowl of ice cream and maybe some chips right before bed. This stress eating (also referred to as emotional eating) can make a pain condition more pronounced. As stress mounts, we reach for more and more food in an effort to soothe whatever is troubling us. Often the foods we reach for are “comfort” foods with lots of fat, salt, and sugar, all of which can trigger pain flare-ups.

How anxiety and stress can affect our diets: The research

Stress and its effect on our diet is not isolated to pain patients. More than one in three adults in the U.S. say that they stress eat when they are feeling anxiety or stress. Of these adults, nearly half stress eat at least once a week. This can lead to serious physical health issues such as obesity and diabetes. Mentally and emotionally, stress eating can be just as devastating. The cycle of stress and eating literally feeds itself with an increase in stress and potentially depression and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety can not only cause people to overeat but also stop eating altogether. People who are stressed or anxious may forget to eat, may not feel like eating, or they may not think they are hungry. This can result in poor nutrition that can lead to irreversible damage, including brittle bones later in life. Pain patients may have difficulty taking medications that need to be consumed with food.

There are ways to address the changes in diet that can occur due to stress, starting with tackling the root causes and changing habits. Here’s how.

1. Figure out what’s eating you

The core of stress-related diet changes is what needs to be addressed first. This might be a tough time at work, home, or with friends. Pain patients have a built-in higher level of stress due to the pain itself but also associated with treatment plans that may be lengthy and complicated.

Caregivers of chronic pain patients are also prone to higher levels of stress and may indulge in stress eating as well. This is compounded by the fact that caregivers may not take good care of their health in other ways, neglecting exercise and self-care to minister to their patient.

Finding out what is really bothering you may be simple, or it may take some time with a qualified and caring friend or therapist. If the stressful trigger cannot be identified, it may be difficult to implement lasting changes.

2. Let yourself feel the emotion

Some people use stress eating to dampen powerful emotions like sadness, anger, and depression. One of the most powerful ways to help stop stress eating is to simply sit with whatever emotion you are feeling, almost like a meditation. Just feel it without judging yourself or the feeling you are having. Eventually, as you sit and breathe and let the feeling come, it will pass.

You can also tie this into hydration by drinking a big glass of water as you sit. This can serve as a substitute while you are working through your feelings without playing into the habit of stress eating.

3. Take steps to relieve stress

You may not be able to quit your stressful job, but there are ways to address stress in your life. They include:

  • Exercise: Exercise is a great way to relieve stress and increase your emotional resilience. A daily walk in the woods or even a lunchtime stroll around the block can help you to relax. Include your family in an afterschool walk to improve everyone’s health.
  • Practice active self-care: Take time to yourself that is spent doing what you love. Crafting, golfing, yoga: it doesn’t matter. If you have an activity that you love but have stopped doing, make time on a regular basis to come back to it.
  • Practice passive self-care: This is a more relaxed version of the above. Massage, a bath, or meditation are all good ways to care for yourself regularly. Other passive self-care might be something as simple as sitting down to read a book with a cup of tea. Whatever helps you relax and release tension on a regular basis is a good self-care strategy.

4. Keep your options healthy

Stress eating habits take a long time to develop and won’t disappear overnight. Knowing this, set yourself up for success by keeping only healthy food options in your house. When the urge to eat hits, reaching for that plate of snap peas instead of a box of cookies can help eliminate feelings of guilt.

5. Eat only when you are hungry

Stress eaters may not really know what it’s like to feel hungry. While it is important to properly nourish your body, make sure that what you are feeling is actually hunger before you sit down to eat.

For those who neglect to eat due to stress, sometimes it is helpful to schedule set times for small meals throughout the day. Only eat foods you find delicious that are also healthy.

6. Eat mindfully

Many people, stress eaters or not, eat sitting in front of a TV or other screen. They may read while they reach mindlessly into a bag, not really knowing what (or how much) they are eating.

Step away from the screen and come back to the table. Practice mindful eating.

Mindful eating is paying attention to what you are eating and who you are eating with. Take smaller bites, chew more slowly and thoroughly, and enjoy what you are eating. Serve food on beautiful plates, and take the time to sit down at the table.

Mindful eating also encourages people to eat when they are hungry, not necessarily at set mealtimes. For those stress eaters suffering from pain, this can also help them to track pain symptoms and potential triggers.

Perhaps the biggest key to minimizing stress and anxiety’s effect on our diet is to simply learn to accept and love ourselves just the way we are. We may need to exercise more frequently or include more fruits and vegetables in our diet, but while we are working on that we can certainly appreciate the things we can do just as we are. Loving and accepting ourselves is truly the first step towards being truly healthy.

How anxiety and stress can affect our diets is a large, complicated topic. Does stress and anxiety change the way (or what) you eat? In what way?


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