We’ve all been there: feeling anxious or pressed for time or overwhelmed—and wanting to head straight to the fridge. When we’re under stress, our adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol. Back when we were living in caves and fighting saber-toothed tigers, cortisol delivered a burst of energy that propelled us into “fight or flight” mode. Today, of course, we’re fighting bills, bosses, and traffic, and cortisol isn’t so helpful. What’s more, that burst of energy winds up making us feel hungrier.

Stress also ramps up ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite and triggers the reward center in our brain when we eat. Stress can affect weight by lowering metabolism. And it can disrupt nightly sleep, which ramps up appetite. Additionally, there are health issues that come with chronic or high stress: heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, insomnia.

When under stress, we might turn to the comfort of food for temporary soothing. There are actually physiological reasons for this: Comfort foods–which are typically higher in sugar, fat, and salt, stimulate the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain’s pleasure center, which literally helps alleviate pain and discomfort!

Stress is an unavoidable part of life—and it won’t vanish just because you’ve lost weight. But there are healthier ways to handle it. Instead of turning to food, try these ideas:
  • Get out of the kitchen. Physically removing yourself from the presence of food makes unplanned eating harder and healthier choices easier.
  • Take a few deep breaths. Inhale slowly through your nose to the count of three, hold for a second or two, then exhale through your mouth to the count of four. Lay a hand on your abdomen, just below your ribs; it should expand as you inhale and flatten as you exhale.
  • Go for a walk. The change of scenery is a good distraction, but a brisk walk can also help lower cortisol levels. And it gives you time and space to regroup.
  • Try yoga poses. The combination of slow movements, focus on breathing, and body awareness shifts your mind into a more contemplative state. Research suggests that yoga can help lower stress, anxiety, and even blood pressure.
  • Be mindful. When you feel the urge to eat, tune into your thoughts and the present moment. Remind yourself, “This is what I want in the moment, but not what I want in the long run.”
  • Get enough sleep. It sounds simple but going to bed an hour earlier can pay off in improved mood, ability to cope, focus, and problem solving—all of which alleviate stress.
  • Lighten the load. Take stock of both your stressors and the resources that can help—skills, people, services. Then brainstorm ways to take some things off your plate. Can your partner take on bill paying? Does the local laundry do pickup and drop-off? Can you say “no” to that extra work project?
  • Talk it out. Sharing your frustrations with your coach or a trusted confidante can help you blow off steam, gain a fresh perspective, and get advice for dealing with a tough situation