The Mental Side of Snacking: Why We Crave Comfort Food When We're Stressed

This blog was written in collaboration with TOVI's nutrition expert, Dr. Tara Coletta, and mental health expert, Dr. Lorena Ruci. Learn more about our experts here.


Why do we crave comfort foods when we're stressed?

We’ve all been there. You’re at work, you’re busy, you’re not hungry...but the pull of the vending machine is irresistible. There’s no denying quick, processed snacks often have little to no nutritional value, but when we are stressed, they’re often the first thing we reach for.

In reality, choosing to consume unhealthy snacks in moments of stress is a form of emotional eating. When we experience the strong emotions of anxiety and fear, we’re wired to seek something soothing and comforting. For humans, food is one of the most basic sources of comfort, and unhealthy foods full of sugar and carbs give us almost immediate gratification.


When in doubt, turn to self-care

We can focus on emotional eating, but often the problem isn’t as simple as convincing yourself to stop eating when you’re stressed. This is because stress doesn’t just affect one small area of our lives. Stress has broader impacts, including impacting your ability to regulate your emotions and respond to stressful situations.

When you are impacted by stress, you might also struggle to address your own wants and needs as opposed to your obligations or the needs of others - leading you to seek quick fixes, like a comforting snack when we’re feeling overwhelmed. When you find yourself eating to soothe your emotions, it’s often because you haven’t found a healthier way to manage your needs in the face of stress. A helpful metaphor is to think of yourself as a car, and when you’re stressed, you’re trying to get down the road with a flat tire.

This is where self-care comes in. When you focus on self-care, you can better manage your emotions and make better decisions. Trying to eat healthier, exercising, getting more sleep, or even taking a few minutes of quiet time for yourself are all acts of self-care that can greatly increase your ability to manage stress.


Here are a few self-care tips that will help you snack healthier.

1.  Prepare

Easy access to quick, unhealthy options is part of what makes it so hard to choose healthy options instead.  Give yourself a chance to make healthy choices by having nutritious snacks ready. Take 5-10 minutes in the morning (before you’re busy or tired from a long day) to prepare for the day (if you’re short on ideas, check out this TOVI article with lots of healthy snack options!). It will be easier to make healthy choices when you’re prepared.


2.  Build Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is your ability to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and actions. When you find yourself about to choose a candy bar for your 3 o’clock snack, building self-awareness will help you take a step back, reflect on what you are experiencing, and consider what you really need.  Start with asking yourself simple questions: Why am I making this decision? Is there a different choice I can make? Chances are, your snack is standing in for a more pressing need.


3.  Set SMART goals

When people are trying to make a change, they often commit to lofty goals with no clear idea of how they’re going to make them happen, setting themselves up for failure. Instead, think about starting small, with manageable goals you can reward yourself for achieving.

A SMART plan is one of the best ways to set yourself up to make manageable goals. Making a SMART plan that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound helps turn lofty goals into highly specific steps that are easy to follow. For more specific information on SMART goals, check out this TOVI Blog post.


4.  Take a break

When the urge to snack or make an unhealthy decision hits while you’re working, use it as a signal to take a small break, like a 5-minute walk around the office or a trip outside. Fresh air and movement will help you overcome feeling sluggish or tired more than a snack will. If going for a walk is out of the question, try stretching at your desk for a few minutes and focusing on drinking more water.


5.  Be kind to yourself

Healthy changes don’t happen overnight, and no one makes healthy choices all the time. Eating when you’re stressed is NOT a sign of weakness or failure, and you shouldn’t punish yourself for it. No one is perfect all the time. Instead of dwelling on failures and looking for immediate changes, focus on the journey you’re on and the successes you’ve experienced. Take the time to celebrate the small wins when they happen.


As you make small changes and succeed, you’ll start to feel more motivated, better able to manage your emotions, and you’ll start to see your health improve.

Topics: Happy Employees, Wellness, Nutrition

Ashley Miller-Dykeman, MA

Written by Ashley Miller-Dykeman, MA

Ashley is a science communicator and writer with a background in biology (BA, Boston University) as well as bioethics and science policy (MA, Duke University). In addition to writing for TOVI, Ashley is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and a loving dog mom.