How Stress Affects Your Diet
When stress occurs, a series of hormonal responses follow that result in a release of adrenaline, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sharpened senses to ready quick action. In addition, cortisol works to release stored sugars and fats for immediate energy . This reaction is necessary in certain stressful situations, but may not be ideal if continued over long periods of time.
When poorly managed, stress can lead to a series of health concerns and has been linked to poor sleep, weight gain, heart disease, weakened immunity and chronic pain . In addition, the hormonal responses associated with stress can negatively affect your diet by contributing to:
- Increased food cravings
- Poor eating habits
- Emotional eating
Strategy #: Go Ahead And Overeat
Our brains like patterns.
Many of our thoughts, emotions, and actions actually happen on autopilot. Theyre parts of sequences our brains know well from years of practice. Those sequences just need triggers in order to take place.
In the presence of a trigger, your brain dictates a given behaviorlike stress eatingwithout requiring any conscious decision-making on your part.
The physical sensation of hunger is the most obvious trigger. That stomach-grumbling, slightly shaky, even-Brussels-sprouts-sound-good sensation is one you can trust to tell you its time to eat.
But stress eating usually comes after other types of triggers, like certain sights, smells, people, and emotions.
For example, you might find yourself hitting the Girl Scout Cookies hard every Saturday afternoon. Youre always left wondering how it happened, and why you feel so crappy about it.
The process is so automatic you often dont have any idea whats triggering it.
But if you really started paying close attention, you might have an epiphany: Its also the time you talk to your mom every week.
So heres a wild idea: Give yourself permission to overeat.
Its going to feel counterintuitive at first.
But view it as a learning experiencea necessary step in the process.
Take A Few Mindful Deep Breaths
“In those moments when you feel really stressed out, take a couple of slow deep breaths,” says Wagner. “The breath can have a naturally soothing impact on the nervous system and also has a calming effect on the mind and body, providing stress-relief that does not involve eating. Try out this brief, seated meditation to support mindful breathing.”
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According To White There Are Specific Questions To Ask And Answer When Documenting In A Journal:
- What emotions are you experiencing right now? sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, loneliness, and so on. Acknowledge that emotion and write it down
- Next to it, write why you may be experiencing that emotion fight with a friend, spouse, colleague, death in the family, anxiety about going out somewhere, boredom, and so on
- Ask yourself, Is this something I can control?
- If yes, find ways to get through the emotion without food going for a walk, listing things they are grateful for, text or call a friend, read, engage a hobby, or meditate
- If no, then we encourage you to work through the emotion. It helps to acknowledge we can only control our own emotions and not how others respond. This can be a difficult process to work through, so often we encourage a person to work with a therapist
Stress Eating Increases Consumption Of High Fat & Sugar
With this increase in cravings , you turn to comfort foods, foods that make you feel good, foods that you look forward to indulging in to soothe the negative emotion.
Health professionals note that several studies indicate that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.
So youve most likely consumed foods higher in fat and sugar.
This increase in calories effectively keeps you from losing weight, and may even cause weight gain.
A consistent increase in processed sugar intake can lead to:
- High Blood Pressure
A diet high in saturated fat can also increase your risk of heart disease and weight gain.
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Maintain A Healthy Meal Schedule
You shouldnt change your normal eating schedule just because youre stuck at home. If youre used to having three meals a day, try to continue that schedule while youre working from home. The same goes for if you typically consume only two meals and a snack.
Though its easy to stray from your normal dietary pattern when your day-to-day schedule gets disrupted, its important to maintain some semblance of normalcy when it comes to eating.
You may find yourself adapting your eating pattern to accommodate your new normal, and thats OK. Just try to maintain a regular eating pattern based on your individual needs and your preferred eating times.
If youre really thrown off and find yourself constantly snacking, try making a schedule that includes at least two solid meals per day and following it until you feel that you have become comfortably consistent with your eating habits.
Clean Up Your Kitchen
For many of us, stress eating is so automatic and habitual that we hardly think about it we just grab whatevers in sight. In order to guard against this mindless eating, try to keep less nutritious foods out of sight, says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. For example, store ice cream in the very back of the freezer beyond the frozen meat and veggies and keep high-calorie junk food in an out-of-reach cabinet or on the highest shelf in your pantry. Even better, make low-calorie, healthy snacks highly accessible by cutting up fresh fruits and veggies and storing them in a glass container front and center in your fridge. Organizing your kitchen for weight-loss success can help streamline healthy habits.
Accept Your Situation By Meditation
Ever considered meditating your way through a bad mood?
If so, fantastic meditation can be a powerful tool to help you deal with the sudden stressors and anxieties that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Meditation forces you to sit back, relax, and better recognize, accept and embrace the inner workings of your mind.
In other words, it prevents you from impulsively resorting to a binge whenever something stressful is going on or when something doesnt go according to plan.
So whenever you notice a sudden shift in mood states, feel an overwhelming sense of stress, or take a hit to your self-esteem, try to resort to a small session of meditation.
There are so many excellent meditation apps out there, freely available for you to download.
Do this meditation session either before or after youve problem solved your way through these negative experiences.
It will keep you grounded and, with enough practice, prevent the urge to binge.
Its Totally Normal To Be Feeling All The Feelings Right Now
And remember: Its understandable to look to food to deal with those feelings.
Food provides us with joy, comfort, and sustenance.
We associate it with good memories, big life moments, and meals shared with loved ones.
We might even use food to help define ourselvesin our jobs, cultures, and even relationships.
But the more we use food to bury how we feel, the worse those uncomfortable feelings get.
Its like Robert Frost wrote: The best way out is always through.
Is it the easiest path? No.
But its the only one that will provide relief. And thats something we could all use more of right now.
Our brains tend to work in cycles.
But the stress eating cycle? Its one you can opt out of.
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Replace Eating With Other Stress
Then, it helps to come to terms with the fact that we usually cant control daily stressors. However, we can control how we respond to them without stress eating. Here are some tried and true activities to swap out stress eating with:
- Go for a short walk
- Read a chapter of a book
- Write in your journal
Establish A Good Morning & Evening Routine
The stress hormone cortisol is the highest in the first hour of being awake and tends to peak at night.
Even though morning anxiety isnt a medical term, it refers to waking up with feelings of stress and anxiety and is very real for the majority of people. The adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear or stress.
Additionally, the evening is when you have plenty of time to focus on your stressors as you roll around in your bed, which raises your anxiety levels. At night there is not much you can do about your stressors until the next morning, leaving you to stew and think about them.
Thats why this tip is CRUCIAL for helping you manage and minimize your stress.
Tips for the Best Personal Routines
Bedtime and morning routines have to be personalized to you. Developing a morning and bedtime routine that works for you will take some time and experimentation.
As a rule of thumb: Dont create items or activities in your routines that dont work for your schedule.
Your morning routine should be designed to relieve stress and anxiety, so dont make your routines so rigid that if you miss an item or twoor the whole routine for some reasonit doesnt completely throw off your whole day or evening and sleep. Doing this will cause you more anxiety and stress and suck the energy right out of you.
Your bedtime routine should be simple, feel easy, and be about taking care of yourself.
Here are a few suggestions:
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Eat Slowly And Mindfully
Eating one spoonful at a time is one method for how to stop stress eating. Try to not have another spoonful or forkful until all of your food is completely swallowed. Notice the flavor of your food, the smell, and how its making you feel.
In the meantime, try to eliminate distractions by putting your phone on silent and not doing anything else other than eating. By truly being with your food, youre basically doing a form of mindfulness meditation which can be very healing for your relationship with food.
Once your plate is empty, take a deep breath, clean your dishes, and begin some other activity outside of the kitchen. Its important to step away and begin something quickly to prevent an episode of overeating in the kitchen after meals.
Eating Can Be An Activity That Adds Pleasure To Your Life
There are many coping mechanisms for dealing with stress some helpful and some harmful. If food and mindless eating is currently yours, know that you can learn how to stop stress eating with practice.
Food and eating is an activity that is meant to add to your health and well-being rather than hinder it. You may have heard the phrase eat to live rather than live to eat.
If youre a caregiver trying to find solace through stressful times, remember that along with all of the tips and advice above, its always a good idea to talk to someone.
Talking with family, friends, a support group, doctor, or therapist about your struggles can help you see it in a new perspective and may even help you get closer to healing it.
Do you have any stories related to stress eating? Have you found any helpful tips or techniques? Wed love to hear from you.
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Why Do We Stress Eat
Psychological factors naturally play an important role in why we stress eat. Many people eat when theyre stressed to help provide temporary relief from unpleasant emotions. After all, when we eat something we love, it can spark feel-good hormones called endorphins.
For some, food can help fill an emotional void because it provides a guarantee. When we eat comfort foods, we know what flavors, textures, and feelings to expect while we eat it. This may be a pleasant contrast to the uncontrollable factors that cause daily stress.
However, when stress-eating becomes a regular occurrence, there may also be other hormones influencing our eating behavior.
During stress, the brain responds with a series of mechanisms designed to help the body return to its pre-stress state. The HPA axis is the primary operator of the brains response to stress. Specifically, the HPA axis connects the brain to the liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands which are collectively known as the endocrine system. When a stressful event occurs, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol.
Normally, cortisol levels fluctuate with a steady decline throughout the day. Cortisol helps boost the bodys daily supply of energy by mustering glucose and fatty acids from the liver. However, cortisol levels spike when a stressful or threatening event occurs to supply extra energy for dealing with the stressor.
Bring Out Your Inner Chef
Some good things come along with being stuck at home. Not having the option to eat out at restaurants makes you cook more meals yourself, which has been shown to improve overall health.
For example, a study in 11,396 people found that eating home-cooked meals more frequently was associated with a greater intake of fruits and vegetables.
Plus, it found that people who ate home-cooked meals more than 5 times per week were 28% less likely to be overweight and 24% less likely to have excess body fat, compared with those who ate home-cooked meals less than 3 times per week .
Whats more, planning your meals a few days ahead can help you kill time and has even been shown to improve diet quality and reduce obesity risk (
To combat dehydration, add a few slices of fresh fruit to your water to boost its flavor, which may help you drink more water throughout the day without adding a significant amount of sugar or number of calories to your diet.
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Tips To Stop Stress Eating At Night
Many people tend to stress eat at night and this may be due to a number of factors. Daytime stress can affect your body by causing it to release hormones like cortisol which increase appetite with a preference for comfort food. Studies also conclude that afternoon and evening may be a high-risk period for overeating especially when stress is involved.
The following tips can help you focus on how to stop stress eating at night:
- Eat a healthy snack in the evening that contains protein.
- Find an activity you can do in the evening that occupies your hands like knitting, drawing, or even cleaning!
- Be sure to eat adequately during the day.
- Get a good night of sleep by creating a bedtime routine that includes creating a peaceful ambiance in your room and going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
What Exactly Is Stress Eating
Before getting into how to stop stress eating, lets start by defining it.
Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is turning to food, even when you might not be hungry, during times of increased stress. While this tends to happen more with unhealthy foods , stress eating can also refer to general overeating or binge eating as a response to stressful situations.
Its a way that we try to numb ourselves so that we dont have to feel the stress as intensely, much similar to how others turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. Stress eating functions as a buffer between us and our feelings.
Ironically, when we first encounter a stressor, the body often shuts down our appetite. However, if the stress continues, eating triggers can begin to surface. Women do tend to be more affected than men, but stress eating can happen to anyone.
In fact, one study performed by the American Psychological Association showed that 38% of people surveyed say stress had caused them to overeat or make unhealthy food choices in the past month. More than half of those people went on to say that it happened at least once a week. Youre definitely not alone in the struggle.
So why do we get these good cravings when stress levels are high? It turns out that theres both a psychological and physiological answer to that question. Well look at the physiological first.
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Consume A More Colorful Diet
According to new research from Edith Cowan University, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with less stress. In a study of over 8600 adults in Australia, it was found that those who ate at least 470 grams of fruit and vegetables per day which is somewhere around five average servings experienced 10 percent lower stress levels than those who consumed less than 230 grams, or just over two average servings.
Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants that are linked to lower levels of inflammation, which can impact mood. These healthy foods also add fiber and can contribute to your daily hydration needs. Try creative ways to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, such as blending them into your protein shakes to add delicious flavor and texture, or mixing different fruits into a fruit salad or a mix of veggies in a stir-fry. The flavors play off one another, and the beautiful colors add appeal.
Finally, be kind to yourself and give yourself time to work on your stress eating. If you find that these tactics arent working for you, ask your health care provider if counseling or group support might be helpful for you.