Stress eating is something that comes up often when I talk to clients. It’s not something to be ashamed of but it’s definitely something we can talk about to make you feel a little better about everything. There will be times in your life where stress eating may make you feel better and other times it may make you feel worse. The goal is to learn how to manage stress eating so that it doesn’t get the best of you.
This is the situation where you are stressed out and you eat either different than you are used to and/or in different quantities or frequencies than you are used to. We’ve all been there, a break-up, a bad test grade, a bad day at the office, a fight with a best friend, or maybe even a coronavirus pandemic. We don’t always know how to deal and a lot of times we end up coping with food.
Let me just clear the air before we get into the details. It is OKAY to cope with food in the short term, it happens, we are only human. HOWEVER, if coping with food becomes completely uncontrollable, makes you feel mentally or physically ill or causes some negative effect to your health, it may be time to make some changes and/or get some help.
In fact, if you feel that this is something completely out of your control and feels like it may be an eating disorder, do not hesitate to reach out and get help ASAP.
So, it may seem that when you are stress eating the best thing to do is stress about it and try to control it. Unfortunately, that usually causes things to backfire. Stress isn’t just a mind game, it is a true emotional AND physiological process that has an impact on the entire body inside and out.
When you are stressed there are a lot of factors at play. One of the biggest ones is well known and it is your stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is actually a steroid hormone that is produced and excreted by your adrenal glands that are like tiny hats on top of your kidneys. They play a big role in your stress response. And while it’d be nice to no have to deal with stress, you need a stress response for many things in life.
For instance, if a bear was chasing you, you’d need a heightened alertness and blood pumped to your extremities so you could RUN AWAY. That is cortisol (as well as other factors) at play to help keep you safe and alive. This is acute stress that goes away shortly after the stressor is gone.
However, this is not the stress that we are talking about, today we are discuss chronic stress…
However, most of us are experiencing CHRONIC stress, meaning we are at this heightened level of stress all the time. Why is this not so optimal? Because your body is not meant to be stressed all the time, it’s meant to be acutely stressed and then come back down. If you do not address the chronic stress, it can first lead to things like:
Another major issue is that it can lead to issues with hunger cues. You may find you are MORE hungry or LESS hungry than normal which just complicates the whole situation of stress eating, now doesn’t it. When cortisol elevates it also presumed that insulin elevates as well as your hunger cue hormone ghrelin (think grrrrr stomach growling = ghrelin).
To make it less complicated, when you are more stressed the signals in your body are messed with and you may end up feeling MORE hungry or LESS hungry and you will also most likely crave things that have a higher sugar and/or fat content as your body is seeking energy and comfort.
This is totally common but not necessarily normal. If it lasts for a few days, just ride it out, however if it’s chronic (aka lasts more than a couple of days) or happens often, it might be time to seek help from a professional.
Usually this response is in response to anxiety related to chronic stress. Meaning, you are in a constant state of fight or flight that is manifesting physically in the body, making you tense and maybe even making you feel sick to your stomach or nauseous. Everyone is different so we respond to stress in different ways but know that the way to manage it is usually the same (see below).
In the meantime, you may want to try to stick to a schedule of eating, find bland foods that are tolerable, and find someone you can talk to to help you through this stress and anxiety.
Ok, now that we know what stress eating is and what it may look like in your lives and bodies, it’s time we find some easy diet and lifestyle ways to combat it, don’t ya think?
This isn’t an all or nothing approach, start small and build upon it until you feel comfortable and confident with the management of your stress eating. Know that restriction is only going to lead to bingeing, so we are going to try to mitigate that with some easy changes below.
This is hard but can be something we can all benefit from. Before eating, sit down, say an intention or a prayer or even just say that you are thankful for the food in front of you. Turn off the TV, put your phone aside and just be with your food. Do not eat on the run, while standing or while doing 10 other tasks, simply eat your food. This will be hard at first and will be a tough habit to break if you are used to be distracted when eating but it will help overtime.
So often we forget that we do, in fact need water. I’m not saying that you need to hydrate because then it will curb hunger, it won’t, but you need to hydrate for your body’s overall health. Hydration will not only aid in digestion and keep your joints feeling lubricated but it may help support your immune system and help with keeping stress and inflammation at bay.
Reach out. I tell my clients this all the time. You don’t have to go through anything alone. If you find yourself stress eating, REACH OUT. Ask a friend to text you or jump on a call with you, whatever you need to relax. Use your support system to help you manage your stress, talk about your worries, and keep stress eating at a minimum.
Our bodies want to move. They don’t want to be cooped up all day and in a sedentary position. They want to go for walks, stretch, jump, bike, swim, etc. and when we do that we can help to lower our cortisol and thus lower our overall stress. This doesn’t mean to OVER exercise/move, it just means that natural movement daily is probably just what the doctor ordered. Having trouble getting started? Use that support system.
This is not an order to never eat sweets again or to not keep them in your house. Instead i’m going to suggest we meet somewhere in between. Having a sweet treat here and there can be comforting and enjoyable and frankly, stress relieving. So we want to keep some on hand, but we don’t need every meal or snack to be a halloween candy jar.
So, what is one to do? A few options:
Stock only what you can handle.
Only keep items on hand that you find are enjoyable but do NOT make you feel like you can’t stop. For example, I love peanut butter cups and peanut m&ms, however, i can have just one pb cup and be satisfied, with peanut M&Ms I will eat the whole dang thing. So, I keep pb cups on hand and RARELY have peanut m&Ms around, if I do I bring 1 small pack in and that’s it.
Enjoy delectable food away from home.
For example, if you find you eat the whole pint of ice cream when it’s in your freezer, make plans to get ice cream AWAY from home. That way you can enjoy a serving without feeling like the wheels are off.
Have healthier sweet treats at home & make them readily available.
Let’s be honest, if it’s between chips and carrots, chips win every time. So have carrots on hand but make them easily accessible (hello, baby carrots) so that you at least know they are as easy to eat as the chips. This doesn’t mean you won’t eat the chips, just means you now have easy access to a healthy option.
Don’t run away yet, here me out. While caffeine and alcohol are quite enjoyable, they can also lead to more stress and more stress eating. SO, we have to find ways to enjoy without causing more harm than good.
Caffeine can lead to jitters and anxiety, which can make us more stressed. Some people are more susceptible to this than others. So, I highly recommend trying to limit caffeine (ideally <200mg/day) when you are anxious and stressed. This is even more true if you are struggling with sleeping.
Alcohol, while it can certainly bring us joy can also weaken our immune response and deplete us of key nutrients we need to manage stress. This might mean you feel more anxious after a night of drinking and may even have poor sleep. I also find that drinking alcohol can lead to more stressed-like eating habits (hello 1 am pizza!). So try your best to moderate alcohol (no more than 1-2 drinks/night) when you are stressed and/or stress eating.
This one may come as a shock, but eating real food can help nourish your body and give it the energy, vitamins and minerals it needs to fuel you and reduce overall stress & inflammation. This doesn’t mean you need to be perfect because, once again, restriction leads to bingeing, but try to center your meals around protein, veggies, fruit, etc. and do your best to snack on real food when able.
Okay, I hope that was helpful especially if you are reading this during the pandemic. Know that you are not alone, and even I, a dietitian, stress eat. It’s a normal coping response but do not let it get the best of you.
Do you experience stress eating? If so, what works for you to help manage it? Remember if you find it’s hard to go at alone, you can easily find a dietitian and/or therapist to help you in the process.
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