Stress is an interesting thing. When we experience stress, it can have a powerful impact, not only on our emotions, but also our habits and choices. One area where many of us can notice change is in our food habits and eating patterns.
Why do we stress eat?
When we are feeling stressed, self-care is often one of the first things to go. Basic habits such as sleep, exercise and eating can quickly be put on the back burner as we divert our focus elsewhere. What’s more, when we perceive our stress as chronic or out of control, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves reaching for items like food for comfort.
Why do we reach for food when stressed?
While overeating can be driven by several factors from boredom to depression, the body’s physical stress response can also play a role. Under conditions of stress our bodies release cortisol (the stress hormone). This in turn stimulates the release of insulin (our fat storing hormone) which can lead us to crave carbohydrates and fat-rich foods. These foods are wonderful at dampening the effects of the body’s stress response, hence why they are often referred to as ‘highly rewarding foods’.
While occasional food indulgence is an enjoyable part of any foodies diet, repeatedly overeating can become problematic when the brain is conditioned to believe that junk food is what we need in order to feel better during stressful situations. Pretty soon, we can find ourselves repeatedly reaching for food in response to stress in our environment.
What can we do to manage stress related eating?
1. Develop awareness of your habits
If you’ve ever found yourself ‘magically’ at the end of a packet of biscuits while working at your laptop or polishing off a tub of hummus while cooking, then you may need to work on your food awareness. Are you someone who eats very healthily throughout the day, but at dinnertime you struggle to control your portions? Or maybe you’re a desktop muncher, always with a snack at your computer? No matter your pattern, spend some time trying to bring awareness to the times of day and situations that cause you to overeat. Once you create awareness around the habits that are working against you, you can more easily apply some of the tools below to help resolve them.
2. Choose comfort foods with intention
It is not uncommon to approach ‘healthy eating’ with an all or nothing mentality. However this can leave us open to even more psychological distress in the long run, as we begin to associate certain foods with guilt and shame. Rather, if we remove the emotion from the food and actively choose to enjoy some of the comfort foods that we like, we are taking back the power and so are much less inclined to binge or berate ourselves for ‘giving in’. Health doesn’t require avoidance of all your favourite foods, rather it is about forming healthy relationships and boundaries with food so that we can enjoy them without the negative consequences of overeating them.
3. Identify your trigger foods
Do you have a gateway food? Perhaps you struggle not to scoff every piece of chocolate in the house, yet you can happily let a packet of crisps sit on the shelf for months? If this is the case, then avoiding your trigger foods in place of foods that you enjoy, but don’t feel out of control around, can be a helpful approach when trying to manage stress-eating. For example, instead of relaxing in the evening with a bowl of ice cream, maybe a glass of wine can elicit the same pleasure without the consequence of overconsumption. While the goal is never to ‘banish’ a certain food forever, it can quickly support a sense of calm and control in the short-term.
4. Lean into structure
Structure and routine are a body’s friend. Everything about our body works on a rhythm and cycle; from our sleep, to our hormonal and our digestive patterns. As such, adding some structure to your meal times or eating patterns can be really helpful in shutting off your impulse to stress-eat. For example, implementing a curfew i.e finishing your meals for the day by 8pm can be really helpful in avoiding late night snacking in front of the TV. Equally, sticking to a schedule of three meals per day and saying no to snacks can help to curb those workstation nibbles.
5. Create a list of alternative activities
When we find ourselves reaching for food when we’re not hungry, it’s often because we are seeking pleasure and comfort, not sustenance. In this instance, it’s really useful to have a list of alternative activities that will make you feel better without the guilt which overeating can bring. Luckily, science is on our side and researchers have identified a few key activities including mindfulness, meditation, exercise and connection (i.e. socialising, romance etc) which all create a similar response in the brain as junk food.
6. Choose nutrient dense foods
While behaviour is a predominant driver in our relationship with food, it isn’t the only one. If we are not providing our bodies with the nutrients it requires to stay healthy through a balanced diet, it can trigger certain cravings. For example, a poor diet can lead to reduced diversity of bacteria in your gut which may lead to a stronger desire for sugar. Equally, if you are low in nutrients like magnesium, you may find yourself with increased cravings for things like chocolate, bananas and avocado – which are naturally rich in this vital mineral.
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This article was last reviewed by Tracey Raye on 30 March 2020.
Tracey Raye is a registered nutritionist with a Master of Science in Personalised Nutrition. She holds further qualifications in Psychology, Philosophy and Life-Coaching which she uses to complement her practice. View Tracey’s website at www.traceyraye.com or follow her on Instagram @traceyraye
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