3 effective ways to nix stress eating

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3 effective ways to nix stress eating

It’s been one of those days.  Maybe you got stuck in traffic, had a disagreement with a co-worker creating drama and then your kids acted like wild banshees while out shopping.  You’ve had a stress-filled day and all you want to do when you get back home and walk through the door is make yourself a big bowl of ice cream. 

That’s called stress eating.  Stress eating is eating in response to stressful events or situations creating difficult feelings.  The feelings can range from sorrow to anger leading to a need to soothe ourselves and comfort foods do a good job of fulfilling that need.

The problem is comfort foods are rarely considered health foods – very few if any of us open the refrigerator door searching for carrot and celery sticks to ease our pain.  Comfort foods tend to be high in sugar, fat and/or calories.  Foods such as potato chips, cookies, cake, or that yummy dessert you made last night.

Craving for fat and sugar

When emotions are running high, why do we seek out unhealthy foods for comfort?  Initially, stress in the short term, can reduce our appetite.  The brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands to pour out the hormone epinephrine to begin the body’s fight-or-flight response blunting appetite putting a temporary hold on eating. 

But if stress is long-term, then a different hormone also released by the adrenal glands is activated.  This hormone is called cortisol and cortisol increases appetite.  Once a stressful situation is done, the cortisol levels fall but if the stress continues, the level of cortisol remains elevated.

When stress is surging it can affect what foods we are craving.  This is where high cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels can trigger the craving for sugary, high fat foods. 

Many of us when under stress find we want to seek out comfort foods helping calm us down.   There can also be gender differences in stress-coping behavior.  Women under stress are more likely to turn to food while men under stress tend to turn to alcohol or smoking.  Studies have shown obesity in women is more likely to be associated with stress eating.

Once a person ingests such a food, these foods comfort us by counteracting stress and this may be what contributes to people’s stress-induced cravings for junk foods.  Unfortunately, healthy foods don’t quite cut into stress like high-fat, high-sugar foods. 

Additionally, stress can lead to anxiety and when stress meets anxiety it spells disaster for getting a good night’s sleep.  Lack of sleep leads to reduced levels of the hormone leptin and increased levels of the hormone ghrelin.  Leptin regulates our appetite and body weight while ghrelin stimulates appetite.  It’s a visious cycle likely to result in weight gain.

How to stop stress eating

If stress was a rare phenomenon, stress eating wouldn’t be a problem. But each day we face stress.   If stress levels are high and long-term, this can lead to an unhealthy pattern of poor food choices.

Here are steps to stop stress eating in its tracks before it starts:

1.     Acknowledge your stress

Stress happens and it’s okay to realize having emotions is a normal, natural human response to when life doesn’t go smoothly.  But recognizing and stating out loud what exactly you are feeling can help you identify the stress – “I’m really mad or frustrated or I feel so sad, lonely or bored.”  Acknowledge you are experiencing stress and name it.

2.       Before seeking comfort ask yourself one question

When the emotional roller coaster leaves the gate and you want to rip open and devour a bag of potato chips – stop.  Ask yourself this one questions – “Am I really hungry or am I eating in response to the stress?”   Be honest with yourself because nine times out of ten, you are eating in response to the stress.  Once you answer that question honestly, move on to step three.

3.     Choose a more healthy, positive activity in response to stress

For this one, you’ll need a readymade list of other things to do besides eating when you feel frazzled.  Anything can be on the list as long as it promotes your health and well-being and gets your mind off of food.

Choose ideas you enjoy – it could be walking your dog, going on a walk, reading a book, stretching, listening to music, or calling a friend who makes you laugh and forget about the stress.  Next time you’re tempted to eat everything in sight, remind yourself you are in control and can choose a better method of dealing with stressful situations.

Other ways a person under stress can put an end to stress eating is to counter it with meditation which helps people become more mindful of food choices.  Any kind of exercise is always a good solution as it can blunt the negative effects of stress and having a good social support of family and friends whom they can lean on in times when tension is running high can be a tremendous help.

We’ll never get rid of stress but we can control stress eating.  Break the cycle of stress eating by having a plan, sticking to it and finding activities bringing your stress levels down to a manageable level.