April is stress awareness month. We all experience stress in our lives and small amounts of it are OK as it often pushes us into action. However, consistent or prolonged periods of stress can seriously affect our mental and physical health.
Stress can also affect our eating habits, resulting in many of us eating the wrong things, known as ‘stress eating’. We can also define this as ‘emotional eating,’ or eating to compensate for, or as an alternative to, dealing with emotions.
For many women, this can be a vicious cycle, sabotaging healthy eating goals, weight loss plans and fitness. Although it’s easy to blame external factors – the food itself, the party who provided it, the place in which it was consumed – it’s important to look at why do we do it?
The real issue with stress-eating lies in lack of awareness of our bodies, emotions, and our ability to deal with them.
Mostly, stress-eating happens when the body doesn’t actually need food. The messages between mind and body get confused, and ‘hunger’ is not the main thing waiting to be satisfied.
The relationship between stress and food
In the short-term, stress can actually prevent hunger cues. How many of you actually stop eating when you are stressed? I know I do. This is because the nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response that temporarily puts eating on hold, therefore suppresses the appetite.
But if the stress continues, the opposite occurs. Cortisol is released at higher levels, which increases appetite and causes those trapped in their stressful episode to block out other emotions, and sometimes logical thought.
The longer the stressful period continues, the more emotional-eating a person will do. This inevitably leads to weight gain, further hormone imbalances, and an increased risk of more serious diseases down the line, such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
It’s a vicious spiral that can be difficult to escape. But fortunately, there are ways to manage stress and emotional eating.
Stress, the brain and food
Cortisol is associated with the ‘fight-or-flight’ reflex our bodies have in response to external threats or stressors. Whenever we experience periods of extreme hunger or intense stress, this triggers the same response from our cortisol levels. As both experiences cause the body to respond the same way, it’s easy to see how the boundaries between one and the other get confused.
Similarly, we’ve grown up getting a steady release of neurotransmitters to the positive areas of the brain whenever hunger cravings are satisfied in a balanced way, leading to associations between food and feelings.
Recognizing these thought patterns, we need to ask ourselves questions like ‘are we eating purely to feel that rush of contentment, or because our bodies actually need it?’ This understanding is vital if we are to gain any kind of understanding of our eating habits.
Getting to know your stressors
I know it’s not the most comfortable experience to look at our discomfort head on, but it’s the only way to make progress against the habits of stress-eating.
Even just taking the time to be honest with yourself and write down when you feel overwhelmed by thoughts of over-eating, or when you automatically turn to food for comfort, can be a great way to begin.
Once you’ve identified the root causes, you can get to work to minimize the risks. For instance, if you know you eat when you’re lonely, plan to call a friend or write in your journal instead. The more frequently you bring awareness to your habits and patterns and divert your energy to these alternative outlets, the easier it will become to ignore cravings to over-indulge.
Emotional eating can be your body’s reaction to feeling deprived in either a physical or mental form, so create new ways to nourish yourself. Stock your fridge with delicious, healthy foods, pack your calendar with exciting things to do, and set aside time for yourself to relax and nurture yourself.
Stress eating and gut health
Gut bacteria directly affects the brain and the hormones, and it’s only in recent years that studies have shown just how strong that relationship is.
Many positive hormones and enzymes are secreted in the gut, so it makes sense that ensuring our digestion is at its optimum level is important to balance out hormonal and emotional functioning.
For stress-eaters, this could be an interesting place to start. If we consider that the emotions causing the stress-eating might start with hormonal imbalances, then regulating digestion could lower the chances and severity of these imbalances, allowing us to regain a certain amount of control regarding emotional eating habits. If the emotions aren’t so strong and extreme, chances are the period of stress-eating won’t be.
Keeping a Food Diary
This is a great way to face up to the reality of what we’re consuming. Agree with yourself to write down every piece of food that passes your lips in a “Food Diary.”
This can be a real eye-opener as you bring an awareness to every bit of food and drink you consume. Note when you eat, what you eat, and how you feel before, during, and after you eat it.
After a few days of this, you will notice some patterns in your eating habits – whether positive or negative; it’s bound to make you see some sort of consistency or inconsistency in the way you eat.
Get to know your stress-eating triggers
Getting to know your triggers is key if you are ever to overcome or manage your emotional eating.
You may begin to notice them as you write in your food diary, and bringing awareness to them will help. Our habits are unconscious. Noticing them is the first step towards changing them.
Planning and preparing your meals in advance for when you’re going to have a busy week will save hours sweating over the cooker. It can also stop you binging on the wrong foods.
To avoid the unconscious eating of everything you’ve so carefully prepared, a great tip is to enlist the help of some trusty Tupperware boxes. Preparing and portioning your food when you’re not hungry means you’ll avoid the temptation to eat all of your meals in one go.
You’ll then have a selection of healthy meals ready for when you’re too busy to cook.
Review your Lifestyle
If you feel you’ve been measuring, analysing, and seeking to change your eating habits to no avail, then maybe you’re simply not taking everything in your life into account as you attempt to change how you eat.
As stress-eating is an emotionally-charged habit, simply changing what you eat might not get to the bottom of the issue. You may also need to look at other external factors, such as the company you keep, your environment, as well as emotional and hormonal factors.
To successfully reassess your eating patterns, you must reassess every aspect of your lifestyle. This also includes your physical and mental activity.
It makes so much sense, and yet it’s so often overlooked that to have a healthy relationship with food requires you to have a healthy relationship with all other aspects of your life.
Making consistent choices
Changing any food-related issue is not one that can be fought once, and never again. Like every habit we seek to change, it’s a series of decisions made repeatedly, meal after meal, and hunger cue after hunger cue. Maintaining awareness surrounding your tendencies and habits as you continue to engage with your food is the most mindful way to achieve a balance in your eating habits.
What to do when you slip back into stress eating
Avoiding stress-eating and learning to nourish ourselves with balanced, satisfying meals is easier said than done. But you may still slip up from time to time.
Busy schedules and unpredictable meal planning happens. The critical thing to be aware of is that this is all perfectly natural.
By providing your body with balanced, regular, portion-controlled meals, you’ll gain control of your eating patterns.
Recognize when you have thoughts or emotions that would previously have resulted in a stress-eating session.
Not everyone eats 100% healthy, 100% of the time.
Through mindful eating, journaling, food prepping, speaking openly about your issues, and acknowledging triggers for what they are; you CAN and WILL see an improvement.
Striving for balance and not perfection is some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Being aware that recovery is not linear is also a humbling realisation.
Allow yourself to struggle and find it difficult at first. Just be aware that it gets easier.
Try to forget all previous periods of stress-eating. Start fresh, beginning with your next meal.
I hope you have found this article helpful. If you’d like help with conquering your stress eating then get in touch via my Facebook page. I am here to support you.