Stress And Eating
If food is your stress fix, you’re not alone. Turning to a favourite snack or meal to fill emotional needs, reduce anxiety, and banish stress is common. Also known as emotional eating, stress-eating involves using food as a coping mechanism to help you feel better. Typically, it has nothing to do with physical hunger and everything to do with soothing or suppressing uncomfortable feelings and situations.
Feeling anxious, worried, and stressed isn’t a great combination, especially when your favourite snack food is nearby. When you eat to satisfy an emotional need, the relief it may provide is often temporary. From a physiological standpoint, stress causes your adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. When this happens, you may notice an increase in appetite and a desire to eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods.
However, this urge to eat isn’t the result of an empty stomach. Instead, it’s your brain telling you to eat so you can prepare for a potentially harmful situation. Typically, the stress subsides, and cortisol levels return to normal. Unfortunately, being bombarded with daily stressors and not finding ways to manage them can lead to high cortisol levels and overeating. An older 2001 study of 59 healthy women found that a psychophysiological stress response may influence eating behaviour and lead to weight gain.
If you’re experiencing sadness after a sudden loss or frustration after an argument with a loved one, for example, you may turn to a pastry, bag of potato chips, or candy bar to manage your emotions instead of dealing with them through communication.
And finally, stress-eating can happen in response to your environment — for example, the physical, mental, and emotional toll of living during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 8 out of 10 Americans feel that the current coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress. And 7 out of 10 Americans report higher stress levels in general since the pandemic started.
There is much truth behind the phrase “stress eating.” Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating. Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists, it's a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but cortisol may stay elevated if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the “on” position.
Emotional eating is a pattern of eating where people use food to help them deal with stressful situations. Many people experience emotional eating at one time or another. It could show itself as eating a bag of chips when bored or eating a chocolate bar after a difficult day at work. However, when emotional eating happens frequently or becomes the main way a person deals with their emotions, their life, health, happiness, and weight can be negatively affected.
Stress And How It Affects Us
Stress may affect how we eat in different ways. For example, one study found that women who reported higher food intake tended to be more anxious after being under prolonged stressful conditions. Another study found that having a diet high in fat, sugar, and sweets helped young adults lower their cortisol levels and, in turn, their anxiety levels, but it also made them more likely to gain weight. To help prevent stress from impacting your food choices, eating well can not only benefit your physical health, but can also make it easier to turn to healthier habits when times get tough. Find out more about how stress impacts your body here.
Many different aspects of life can affect stress levels. Feelings of discomfort, pressure, or frustration can all cause us to lose control, increasing our levels of stress. The following list of symptoms and information are symptoms of chronic stress:
- Chronic fatigue,
- Acute stress disorder,
- Arthritis or joint pain,
- Mental illness,
- Sore throat,
- Tiredness, and
- Unusual weight loss.
When stress causes physical symptoms to appear, you are experiencing physical stress and the emotional stressors mentioned above. Because physical stress increases your heart rate and blood pressure, it can stress your cardiovascular system. In turn, this causes you to feel drained and fatigued.
Symptoms of stress include physical changes in the body as well as changes in the brain. For example, research shows that the heart rate increases during intense or stressful activities, while shortness of breath is common. The brain also experiences physical changes during the experience of stress.
Researchers have found that the brain itself actually becomes “turned off” to the threat of danger and becomes less active. Blood flow is also decreased, and levels of the hormone cortisol go up. These changes occur because the brain, which is highly tuned to threats, doesn’t respond to everyday stresses. And cortisol can mess with us, triggering the stress hormone. When you’re stressed, you often want something to make you feel better.
How Emotional Eating Is A Coping Mechanism
What is emotional eating, and how do you get away with it? If you're stressed, hungry, tired, or don't have the time to cook or are sick of eating the same old foods, turning to a favourite unhealthy meal to pick up the pieces of your busy schedule is easy. Instead of bringing a favourite food from home, bring lunch from work.
Or, if you don't have time to pack food from home, pack a healthy snack, such as fresh fruit and nuts. But if eating in response to a stressful event or situation is a habit you've fallen into, you may find that you are no longer motivated to do it anymore. You may be more likely to eat unhealthy foods without any particular need even when you aren't hungry.
Stress triggers these strong physical and emotional feelings in everyone. The very act of noticing these emotions can actually feel stressful in itself. With an awareness of the emotions that drive and shape your actions, you can identify when you’re experiencing one and learn how to deal with it.
You comfort eat — If you use food to cope with your current emotions, this might be a sign of emotional eating. Filling up on sweets or comfort foods can give you temporary relief from feeling unhappy and may prevent you from seeking healthier options that may be more effective. In the long term, guilt and feelings of disappointment after indulging may lead you to make a different choice next time.
Triggers For Stress-Eating
Eating to relieve stress is linked to feeling powerless, low self-esteem, and low self-confidence. Additionally, people who eat when stressed tend to be more anxious, depressed, and have poorer overall mental health. To curb your stress eating habits, create new, healthier habits that serve your emotional needs. Start taking some time to nourish yourself: meal plan, get active, practice mindfulness, and make time for yourself.
Quick tips to change your eating habits:
- Keep a journal to record how you feel after each meal.
- Plan meals in advance, so you can wait to eat until you are starving.
- Practice mindful eating, and notice how your body reacts to your food.
- Track your daily calories by looking at your weekly report or an app on your smartphone.
The word “stress” itself can trigger an emotional binge. If you’re stressed about a family issue or job, stressed about money, the kids, a divorce, an illness or death in the family, you may find yourself eating uncontrollably at the first hint of anxiety, tension, or tension-filled feelings. If you feel overwhelmed by too many obligations, the holiday season (just before or during the holidays) may also trigger stress eating.
In fact, reports are that the entire month of December is known as the “holidays.” Distracting and comfort-eating is also common when you feel extremely stressed. Some people turn to food to avoid painful emotions, either because they have a tendency to hide their feelings or because they are ashamed and embarrassed to face their feelings and deal with them.
Signs Of Emotional Eating
These may indicate that you may be eating to cope with stress:
- Your stomach or mouth is becoming distended, and you’re feeling bloated or uncomfortable.
- You are skipping meals or eating more than you normally do.
- You’ve increased your eating after a bad day, and your normal weight may not be the best indicator of your nutritional health.
- You feel guilty about eating certain foods and eat them anyway.
- The urge to eat becomes more intense when you are stressed.
- After a while, you stop eating when you feel emotionally strong, and you don’t even think about what you’re eating.
Emotional eating can be a habit, but there are ways to help break your emotional eating habits. For starters, pay attention to what is fueling your stress and eating habits.
How To Handle Emotional Eating
Implement a strategy to address stressors when eating. For example, if you find yourself struggling to eat when your co-worker is giving you a hard time, or you’re upset about work, take some time to assess the situation and prioritize. If you can, ask the other person to leave, go to another room, or if the situation is potentially dangerous, notify the supervisor or your boss so you can take a break. Create a space in your schedule to eat. If you can’t eat whenever you want, create a set time to allow yourself to eat. It could be at mealtimes, or the times you choose to leave the office, or anytime you feel the need.
When you have a moment to spare, and you want to eat, remember you are no longer hungry. Do you feel guilty about eating even though you are not actually hungry? Notice that you aren’t craving comfort food. This time of stress can also trigger eating and emotional eating, and you will likely crave comfort foods, even if you don’t want to.
When you want to eat, try and eat from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. This will help the weight gain decrease and give you a chance to reconnect with your needs. In addition to stress, sleep deprivation is also common among American workers. Workers are expected to work longer hours and respond to emails and text messages when they are just trying to rest.
How Does Stress Relate To Eating
Stress can affect your ability to process and recognize complex and subtle flavours. Our favourite products, sometimes referred to as “pleasure foods” by the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University, were designed to address this cognitive disconnect.
They contain ingredients that bring out the flavours of their ingredients (e.g., upping the umami in miso), are naturally delicious, and have a neutral taste. Research shows that stress can affect your hunger, and as a result, how much you eat. Unsurprisingly, if you feel stressed, you’ll likely take in less food than usual. Eating can be triggered by physiological factors as well as emotional triggers. If you feel low on energy, you may overeat to try and recharge.
Stress can negatively affect your body’s ability to regulate your eating habits. When stress levels rise, you tend to eat more. That’s not to say that eating in response to stress is always bad. You may feel more alert, so you eat breakfast and snacks to sustain yourself throughout the day.
However, if your appetite increases even when you are not hungry, you might be eating for reasons other than physical hunger. While eating when you aren’t hungry may seem like a good idea in the short term, it may have serious consequences for your long-term health. That’s because people who eat when they are not hungry tend to develop a diet high in fat and refined carbs, low in fiber, and high in sugar.
The Connection Between Stress And Food
Why do so many of us turn to food in times of stress? Despite what those dairy commercials tell you, drinking lots of milk isn’t going to fix your problem. Although consuming healthy foods (including cheese, milk, yogurt, and ice cream) can offer us comfort and relief, these types of foods don’t actually quell the stress response.
In fact, in some situations, such as social stressors, the stress response can actually increase. Taking in too many carbohydrates, sugar, or alcohol (all of which activate the stress response) during a stressful situation can result in a quick emotional rebound and increase the stress hormone cortisol levels in your body.
According to Psychology Today, “stressed people tend to eat more than they otherwise would and/or have a greater caloric intake.” The combination of emotional eating with increased cravings to reach for stress relief (namely, comfort foods) is what researchers have dubbed “the eating pattern of stress.”
This eating pattern is usually associated with increased food consumption and an unbalanced diet with excess calories. If your “going out of your way” food consumption is significantly more than your peers, it’s likely a sign of stress. Anxiety can cause you to eat because you’re distracted and preoccupied with troubling thoughts or feelings, and overeating is an outward expression of your internal feelings.
Stress can trigger many physiological responses that send signals to your brain to break down protein, carbohydrates, and fats for fuel. In addition, even eating a healthy meal for fuel can help you feel better. If you are stressed out, it’s hard to be satisfied with that healthful meal so that you may turn to comfort food for comfort.
You might opt for junk food, chocolate, fast food, and unhealthy snacks to give you a quick shot of energy. Not surprisingly, eating becomes less important when you are stressed and can become a stressor in and of itself. Instead of satisfying your emotional needs, eating for fuel gets your brain out of trouble and can provide fuel for a heightened state of arousal.
Why We Eat When We’re Stressed
Your body takes in hormones when you’re stressed, which can be enough to cause you to eat. When your body’s stress response triggers the release of cortisol, an appetite suppressant, your body wants you to eat to reduce stress. Your gut bacteria sense the release of cortisol, which releases more of the appetite suppressant hormone serotonin. Eating higher-calorie foods can also help buffer you from the effects of stress on your mood.
“Every person experiences different feelings and emotions when we eat, and you can’t just think, ‘If I feel sad, I’m going to eat that brownie,’” says Lisa Cimperman, Ph.D., director of the HSPH Nutrition in Health Research and Education Center and co-author of the new book “This Way to Thin.” “We have a range of cognitive and emotional responses to foods, and eating them can actually make us feel better.”
Anxious eaters who feel the need to eat a snack can do so in an attempt to satisfy their anxiety. For example, they might reach for high-fat or high-sugar foods because those are the things that typically bring about the feelings they are trying to avoid. In other words, food can be a comfort when we’re in dire need of one. And, if there’s an emotional cause, not all foods are off-limits.
The Signs Of Stress-Eating
Even though you might think you’re making healthy food choices while stress eating, in fact, you are feeling completely out of control in your relationship with food. If you find yourself depriving yourself of healthy foods that actually satisfy you, eating unhealthy foods or overeating, then you have probably created a big problem for yourself.
When stress is the main cause of emotional eating, the quality of food you are eating may be limited, and you will feel less satisfied after you eat. When you’re stressed, you also might think you’re eating for energy, but you’re actually only doing it to distract yourself.
As your stress increases, emotional eating behaviours increase, too. You may have trouble controlling your eating, or you may overeat even if you’re not actually hungry. If you’re consistently restricting or bingeing, your weight may decrease as a coping strategy to help you cope with stress.
If your appetite and weight change, you’re probably stressed and trying to reduce or control the changes in your diet. Your weight loss or gain is your body’s way of changing to help you cope with stress. Eventually, your stress and eating behaviour work against each other when your body begins to respond to stress by putting on weight. At that point, you may need help to reach a balance.
Eating food to fix your mood may seem like a logical choice, but most of the time, it doesn’t. This eating only serves to make you feel worse. Think of the stress and eating as two different kinds of demons. The one you feed makes you fat, and the one you banish makes you thin.
With stress-eating, you choose food to fill a void that is better filled by talking or taking a walk or doing something else productive. Rather than enjoying your food, you’re making it a performance. If the only place you eat to treat stress is in front of the TV, turn it off and put your food in your fridge, if you still have one. The same is true with eating to soothe emotional pain, whether caused by you or someone else. If you’re stressed out, it’s the last thing you need to do.
All feelings can feel heavy at times, but in the long run, they do not lead to a strong sense of well-being and can put your health at risk. Maintaining a positive emotional outlook can help you function well in everyday life, but going overboard and succumbing to unhealthy coping mechanisms can be a problem.
If your coping mechanisms don’t feel satisfying or are taking over your life, it may be time to reassess and seek the help of mental health professional. Getting a good night’s sleep is important for your mental health, which is why it’s important to get enough sleep and to avoid jet lag before travelling.
I trust you enjoyed this article about Stress And Eating. Please stay tuned for more blog posts to come shortly.
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