Is Stress Eating an Eating Disorder?

Depression in Fall

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

It can be difficult for anyone to build and maintain a healthy relationship with food. Eating is a key way we fuel and care for our bodies and sustain our lives. But we receive many messages from our social environment (and even our bodies) that might prompt us to use food in other, less healthy and fulfilling ways — for example, to temporarily soothe or numb negative emotions.

The behavior of turning to food to manage stressful situations and relieve challenging emotions is typically referred to as emotional eating or stress eating. Stress eating is not an eating disorder on its own; however, it is related to patterns and symptoms of eating disorders. And it often requires a similar approach of care, support, and, when needed, appropriate treatment to provide relief and promote well-being.

Stress and Eating

Stress, both good and bad, is ever-present in our lives. We experience it at work, in our interactions with family and friends, at critical life transitions, and in response to challenges such as health conditions. Since 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic has also uprooted routines, added new stressors, and required new coping strategies. In a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association, 78% of adults identified the COVID-19 pandemic as a significant source of stress in their lives [1].

The practice of eating to manage stress is common and relatable. For example, many of us will reach for the occasional sugary snack when we’re feeling tired or anxious or use eating to distract ourselves when we’re facing an overwhelming task. But how do our minds and bodies link stress with food? And how is stress eating related to having or developing an eating disorder?

To start, many people have formed habits and beliefs that link eating with the experience of comfort. The idea of using food to ease distress and improve morale is widespread in society and often introduced to us from an early age.

Adding to these social factors are the main biological drivers of stress-related eating, as outlined by Harvard Health Publishing [2]:

  • Although stress can initially reduce one’s appetite due to a release of adrenaline, ongoing stress leads to the release of the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite. Under persistent stress, cortisol levels can remain high.
  • The body’s stress response seems to make us favor foods that are high in fat and sugar. Our stress eating behaviors can also become reinforcing, leading to cravings and further intake of high-fat, high-sugar foods.

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Stress Eating’s Connection with Eating Disorders

One similarity between stress eating and eating disorders is the presence of worry and distress in relation to eating. For example, emotional eating may add to a person’s shame, guilt, and self-esteem struggles, possibly leading to an ongoing cycle of difficult emotions and unhealthy eating. Ultimately, stress eating is not a sustainable long-term coping strategy, and it may make stress worse.

In some cases, the presence of stress eating may indicate that an individual is developing an eating disorder. In particular, people who are struggling with stress eating may be at risk for binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa — two conditions that include aspects of emotional and excessive eating as part of their symptoms. The diagnosis of an eating disorder is made based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5. Accordingly, stress eating on its own does not indicate an eating disorder, and many people who engage in stress eating behavior will not develop one.

Overall, regular stress eating is a less-than-ideal way to manage the stresses of daily life or cope with mental health struggles. And those who are struggling with persistent stress eating should seek the necessary support to build healthier and more effective coping strategies to protect their health and well-being. In general, if you’re struggling to manage the behavior on your own, that’s a good sign that you should seek treatment. Feeling a lack of control when you engage in emotional eating is also an important warning sign that you might need additional help.

A Healthy Mindset for Eating and Managing Stress

To effectively manage stress and combat stress eating, it’s important to develop alternative coping strategies and leverage social support systems in times of need. It’s also important to learn to distinguish emotional hunger from (true) physical hunger, understanding that each one has distinct physical and emotional signs and symptoms. This often involves practicing mindfulness and gaining greater self-awareness about one’s eating behaviors.

Here are some strategies that can help you reduce stress and avoid emotional eating:

  • Engage in relaxation and mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation.
  • Improve your diet overall by adding healthier, nutrient-rich foods and replacing stress-related food choices with healthier alternatives.
  • Get regular exercise and implement self-care routines that help reduce stress and meet your body’s needs. Going for walks, getting sufficient sleep, and connecting with friends are all great places to start.
  • Learn about your food triggers by documenting what and when you eat. This can give you meaningful insight into your eating habits and help you change them for the better.

Because you’re building a new mindset around managing stress and approaching food, it’s important to be patient and compassionate and take it one step at a time. “It’s okay if things don’t go smoothly all the time,” writes Samantha Cassetty, RD, for TODAY. “You’re a work in progress, and conquering stress eating takes practice” [3].

With the right support and, if needed, treatment, it’s possible for people to cultivate healthier, more empowered strategies for handling food and stress. An additional upside is that, armed with the right strategies, individuals can also learn more about their emotions and needs and take care of themselves more proactively — now and into the future.


[1] American Psychological Association. (2020, October). Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.

[2] Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, February 15). Why stress causes people to overeat.

[3] Cassetty, S. (2021, January 29). Eating your feelings? Here’s how to break the stress and comfort eating cycle. TODAY

About Timberline Knolls

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Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 30, 2022. Published on
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 21, 2022