You’ve probably experienced stress eating and if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard of it. Things aren’t going too well, or maybe things are going too well and you feel a little overwhelmed, and you find yourself making … less than excellent food choices.

But, why?

Stress eating isn’t just an excuse and it isn’t all in your head. To overcome and prevent stress eating, it helps to understand it. Here we’ll discuss the causes of stress eating as well as what you can do about it.

Bad Food is Easy

Stress eating, the aptly named condition to define eating when you’re stressed, can be caused by a number of things. Some of these are actually fairly complicated biological events. We’ll start with the simplest things first.

The first cause of stress eating is that bad food is convenient. If you have a lot on your plate, it can seem easier, cheaper, and more efficient to simply hit up a drive-through on your way home or have takeout delivered. After all, that frees up time that you don’t need to spend prepping, cooking, and cleaning up.

There’s a lot to unpack there.

First, poor dietary choices like fast food aren’t actually cheaper than healthier options. That’s a common misconception that comes from the fact that we pay for fast food one meal at a time. This can make it seem less expensive than buying fresh food. You might have to drop more cash at the grocery store than at the pick-up counter, but you get more food out of a grocery cart than a card-board box.

As for the time efficiency, there’s no arguing that fast food is faster than home-made food. However, you can make home cooking more time-efficient by “meal prepping.” That’s when you make big batches of food and fridge or freeze the rest so that you have pre-made food ready to go.

It can really cut down the time that you spend prepping, cooking, and cleaning per meal. Having ready-made food that you can take with you also reduces the draw of buying fast-food while you’re out and about.

Your Body is Programmed to Crave Bad Foods When You’re Stressed

If only all of the draws of stress eating were about time and money. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Many of your moods and physiological functions are caused by messenger molecules called “hormones” that your body releases in response to external factors. One of these chemicals is called “cortisol.” This chemical gets pumped into your blood when you’re stressed, and it has a lot to do with how you eat and what your body does with that food.

What we recognize as the stress response is an evolutionary carryover from when our ancient ancestors needed to fight or run from all of their problems. That’s not the case for us anymore but it’s still how our bodies react to stress. When you’re fighting or running from your problems, your body requires a lot of energy so cortisol, the stress hormone discussed above, makes you crave foods that are high in fats and carbs.

This isn’t something that you can simply will away. However, you can work around it. When you start to crave those carbs and fats, give your body the healthiest carbs and fats that you can find from sources like fruits and whole grains instead of from junk food.

Bad Foods Make You Feel So Good

There’s one other way in which our genetic make-up is out to get us when it comes to stress eating. We’re all genetically predisposed to an addiction to carbs and fats.

This has to do with our ancient ancestors and chemical messengers again, but this time it has to do with a different group of chemical messengers called “neurotransmitters.” These do a number of different things but one of the things that they do is set up your body’s very own reward system.

When you do something that your body thinks is good for you, it rewards you by filling your head with feel-good neurotransmitters to try to reinforce that action. Finding things like fats, sugars, and carbs was very rare and very important for our ancient ancestors. As a result, when they found a source of these nutrients, they got a shot of feel-good brain chemicals to encourage them to continue seeking out those foods.

Unfortunately, foods that are high in fats, sugars, and other carbs are much easier to come across these days, but we still get that good feeling when we eat them. That’s why if you’re feeling down sweets can help to pick you up.

You can approach this issue like the last one – by giving your body carbs and fats from healthy sources like fruits and plant oils. You can also find other things that satisfy your body’s internal reward system and do those things instead. For example, exercise releases feel-good hormones too, as well as being good for your physical and emotional health in a lot of other ways as well.

The cards are definitely stacked against you when it comes to stress eating. You can’t always turn these cravings off, but you can out smart them to satisfy your body’s needs in ways that are much healthier for you.