When you’re stressed, what do you turn to for comfort? Shopping? Meditating? Napping? It turns out that many Americans turn to food. This is known as stress eating or emotional eating.
Stress and Eating
Believe it or not, a little stress can actually suppress hunger. This is all based on the flight-or-fight principle. The adrenaline from the stress keeps you focused and energized on the task at hand, so the feeling of hunger temporarily subsides. When you experience a lot of stress the opposite feeling happens.
Excessive levels of stress can cause the body to experience a surge of the stress hormone known as cortisol. High cortisol can lead to insomnia and increases feelings of depression. To counteract this you may experience some cravings for comfort foods that are full of fat, salt, sugar or carbohydrates, like ice cream, French fries, popcorn, or candy. These yummy components put you in a happier mood because they boost serotonin in the brain. Serotonin balances your mood and low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression.
Emotional eating is not unusual, but it’s not healthy. In fact, while eating when you’re stress sounds innocent enough it can have serious health consequences. It can lead to overeating and weight gain. These side effects can cause you to experience more stress, which in turn leads you to overeat more–thus, the vicious cycle continues.
Stop Stress Eating With These Tips
- Know your triggers. What is causing your stress? Is it work? Is it family problems? Once you figure out the cause you can better understand why you overeat and devise an alternative course of action. It’s also important to note that stress may not be the only reason you overeat. You are also likely to overeat when you are bored or if you simply have bad habits.
- Have healthy alternatives. If you can’t beat the cravings completely consider eating healthier alternatives like lite, unbuttered popcorn over the usual salty, buttery kind. If you need something sweet to eat consider fresh fruit instead of ice cream. If you want something salty, consider roasted or lightly salted nuts instead of chips.
- Eat stress-busting foods. If you prefer not to eat the healthy alternatives to the comfort foods, consider eating foods that are great at lowering stress. Try eating foods that are high in protein like salmon. Spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and asparagus also have nutrients that lower stress. Or drink a tall glass of water, as dehydration contributes to stress.
- Be mindful of your bites. If you can’t stop yourself from eating at least be mindful of your bites. The slower you eat, the more you’ll enjoy the taste and texture of your food. This may help you eat less.
- Retrain yourself. Instead of eating, come up with healthy alternative activities that you can do when you’re stressed. Consider doing a few jumping jacks, crunches, and push-ups when you’re stressed. Wash the dishes or clean some other area of your home when you’re feeling anxious. Texting a friend for support, meditating, or getting some fresh air are also healthy alternatives to overeating.
Bonus. For more information on eating disorders, check out this article.