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Homebound and Hungry? How to Manage Stress Eating

Research corroborates the well-documented link between stress and snacking.

Staying Healthy at Home

With gyms closed and exercise options limited for some people based on their location, many people under stay-at-home orders are struggling to adjust their diet and exercise routine to stay both healthy and physically fit. But feeling uncertain and anxious, many people are describing themselves as homebound and hungry, admittedly engaging in bouts of stress eating. Research suggests that if you can relate to this statistic, you are in good company.

Post pandemic panic buying, many households are well-stocked in terms of food and beverages. Those who are not are either standing in social-distance-spaced lines outside of grocery stores or receiving home deliveries, which are quickly dragged inside to a makeshift sanitization station in a staging area somewhere between the front door and the kitchen.

What are we eating? Some ultra-health-conscious consumers may boast kitchens stocked only with natural, healthy produce and lean meats. Most of us, however, are not so constrained. Although we have healthy meal options available, our cupboards are also packed with chips, cookies, and other “staples,” including ice cream in the freezer. And according to research, when we feel nervous, it is those items we are more likely to reach for.

Understanding Stress Eating

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Rebecca R. Klatzkin et al. (2019) examined the established link between perceived life stress (PLS), cognitive restraint, and consumption of comfort food, resulting in weight gain.[i] They noted that individuals under stress and experiencing negative affect turn to comfort food as reward-driven behavior in order to feel better and achieve “emotional relief.” They note this is particularly true for people who have higher PLS and cognitive restraint—which they define as intentional calorie counting to either maintain or lose weight.

They proposed that this relationship is due to the fact that PLS and cognitive restraint increase stress eating by enhancing the association between stress-related negative affect and consumption of comfort food. They note that comfort food consumption produces emotional relief in people with higher PLS but wanted to explore how this might promote future stress eating.

In their study, they gave 43 heathy women snacks of M&Ms, chips, and golden Oreos to consume after completing either a Trier Social Stress Test or a rest period on separate days. They found that negative affect induced through stress predicted more snacking for women with higher levels of PLS, which in turn was linked with a greater degree of emotional relief following stress-snacking. These findings are consistent with prior research linking stress and comfort-food-induced stress relief as a basis upon which comfort food can become a form of self-medication.

True, there were only women in their study, but other research has established that men stress eat as well.[ii] In addition, Klatzkin et al. note that people respond to stress differently. When it comes to self-reporting, they note that approximately one-third of adults admit stress eating, but another one-third report undereating in response to stress or skipping meals altogether. In order to maintain optimum health, it appears the common denominator is managing stress—which is usually easier said than done.

But even without an easy solution to managing stress, there are ways to manage stress eating.

Mindful Menu Selection and Reasonable Rationing

Perhaps your pantry, fridge, and freezer always contain a steady supply of comfort food. For other people, stress and perceived scarcity have prompted acquiring a special stash of usually-forbidden snacks, including high-calorie indulgences they would never permit in the house under normal circumstances. Regardless of which scenario explains your current plethora of provisions, you may want to rethink rationing.

And even if you are one of those lucky people able to remain physiologically and physically unaffected by anxiety, chances are not everyone in your household is blessed with that composure. In addition, for people used to working or otherwise spending the day outside the home, being stuck inside throws their mealtime schedule off-kilter in other respects also. Being forced to break usual routines, it can be challenging to reproduce healthy habits at home.

Thankfully, we are incredibly malleable when it comes to developing new habits. The goal is to establish practices that are healthy for everyone in your household. When provisions are plentiful, the key is portion control. Strategize regular mealtimes and plenty of non-edible distractions and activities to fight the temptation to engage in stress snaking in order to stay healthy while homebound.


[i] Klatzkin, Rebecca R., Reedhi Dasani, McKay Warren, Catrina Cattaneo, Tzvi Nadel, Cleo Nikodem, and Harry R. Kissileff. 2019. “Negative Affect Is Associated with Increased Stress-Eating for Women with High Perceived Life Stress.” Physiology & Behavior 210 (October). doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112639.

[ii] Nikki Clauss and Jennifer Byrd-Craven. 2019. “Exposure to a sex-specific stressor mitigates sex differences in stress-induced eating.” Physiology & Behavior Volume 2021 (April), 26-35.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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