Why Do I Want To Eat When Im Stressed
Feeling anxious, worried, and stressed isnt a great combination, especially when your favorite snack food is nearby. When you eat to satisfy an emotional need, the relief it may provide is often temporary.
From a physiological standpoint, stress causes your adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. When this happens, you may notice an increase in appetite and a desire to eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods.
However, this urge to eat isnt the result of an empty stomach. Instead, its your brain telling you to eat so you can prepare for a potentially harmful situation. Typically, the stress subsides and cortisol levels return to normal.
Unfortunately, being bombarded with daily stressors and not finding ways to manage them can lead to high cortisol levels and overeating. An older of 59 healthy women found that a psychophysiological response to stress may influence eating behavior and lead to weight gain.
Stress-eating is also associated with uncomfortable emotions.
If youre experiencing sadness after a sudden loss or frustration after an argument with a loved one, for example, you may turn to a pastry, bag of potato chips, or candy bar to manage your emotions instead of dealing with them through communication.
And finally, stress-eating can happen in response to your environment for example, the physical, mental, and emotional toll of living during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pause When Cravings Hit And Check In With Yourself
Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, its all you can think about. You feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now! Because youve tried to resist in the past and failed, you believe that your willpower just isnt up to snuff. But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think.
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Medically Reviewed on 9/30/2020Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth EditionJournal of Psychosomatic ResearchInternational Journal of Eating DisordersIn, Food and Addiction: A Comprehensive HandbookPreventionIran Red Cres JWomen’s HealthPsychology TodayPsychological ScienceWomen’s HealthPsych CentralThe Sports Journal
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Eat At Regular Intervals
The longer you go without eating, the more likely you are to eat too much, whether youre anxious or not.
Instead of stuffing yourself at one sitting, eat balanced meals and snacks every three to four hours. Eating regularly like this will help you control your portion sizes and limit the urge to eat out of stress. The goal is to feel satisfied and not turn to food, says Cabrera.
Stress And Binge Eating: Why We Do It And How To Avoid It
Whether its an upcoming deadline at work or moving to a big city, stressful life events tend to trigger cravings for comfort food. Sitting in front of the TV with a cheeseburger and chocolate ice cream may seem like the easiest solution for emotional woes, but halfway through the pint of Rocky Road is when guilt and frustration usually set in. Eating is a common coping mechanism for stress, but studies have shown it does nothing to decrease stress levels and can lead to serious weight gain.
Tips To Help Control Binges
If you think you have binge eating disorder, work with a doctor to get well. Treatment might include counseling and, sometimes, medicine.
Try these tips to avoid food binges:
- Keep a food diary. It will help you learn when you tend to binge. You can also see what was going on in your life that may have led you to do it.
- Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. They’ll keep your blood sugar steady, so you won’t feel hungry enough to binge.
- Portion out your food. Don’t just grab a big bag of chips and head to the couch to watch TV. Measure out one serving into a small bag or onto a plate. You’ll be less likely to eat too much if you have to get up for more.
- Think about why you’re bingeing. Are you depressed or anxious? Find another way to soothe these emotions.
Kelly Allison, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
American Psychiatric Association: âEating Disorders.â
Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. “Binge Eating Disorder.”
Harvard School of Public Health: “How to Avoid Overeating.”
Helder, SG. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 2011.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: “Binge Eating Disorder.”
National Eating Disorders Association: “Binge Eating Disorder,” “Types & Symptoms of Eating Disorders.”
National Health Service: “Binge Eating – Causes,” “Binge eating – treatment.”
Take Common Offenders Out Of Your Pantry
Consider trashing or donating foods in your cupboards that you often reach for in moments of strife. Think high-fat, sweet or calorie-laden things, like chips, chocolate, and ice cream. Also postpone trips to the grocery store when youre feeling upset.
Keeping the foods you crave out of reach when youre feeling emotional may help break the cycle by giving you time to think before noshing.
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How To Tell If Youre Stress Eating
While some people purposely and consciously dive into a pint of ice cream after a trying day, others may stress eat without even knowing it, Knott says. People get on autopilot, she says. It becomes part of our lives, and we dont necessarily recognize what is happening.
To avoid mindless eating, its important to understand the difference between emotional and physical hunger. Before you tear open a bag of chips, take stock of how youre feeling physically and mentally, Knott says. Hunger feels different for everybody, but its often accompanied by physical symptoms like a growling or empty stomach, low energy and headache. If youre craving snacks without any of these physical signs, you may simply be looking for comfort or a distraction, Knott says.
If you arent truly hungry and it is a comfort food type of response, or a way to manage the stress that is related to using food to soothe, then you might want to take a different approach, Knott says.
Support Yourself With Healthy Lifestyle Habits
When youre physically strong, relaxed, and well rested, youre better able to handle the curveballs that life inevitably throws your way. But when youre already exhausted and overwhelmed, any little hiccup has the potential to send you off the rails and straight toward the refrigerator. Exercise, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits will help you get through difficult times without emotional eating.
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Is It Possible To Prevent Emotional Eating
The prevention of emotional eating primarily involves reducing stress, using constructive ways to understand and manage emotions, and by using food as sustenance rather than a way to solve problems . Research also shows that thinking about the future rather than staying focused on satisfying food cravings tends to prevent emotional eating. Other ways to prevent emotional eating behaviors include engaging in meditation, exercise, and other constructive stress prevention and stress management techniques, as well as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or drugs.
The Original Reason Why You Were Upset Is Never Uncovered
Sure, your negative feelings were offset by eating. But why did you even feel negative to begin with? Where did the emotion spring from? How long has it been there? What triggered it? And how?
Do you even know? Or were you just too preoccupied with the thought of eating, too busy eating and filling yourself in your food, to even care?
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How To Know If You Are An Emotional Eater
When we feel strong emotional states, some of us are more likely to binge eat – eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time while feeling unable to stop. Alternatively, we may graze. This is where we may find ourselves eating constantly throughout the day. Every time you pass the fridge the door magically opens and throws food at you!
Others may restrict their eating. This may be an attempt to feel control over something during a time of great uncertainty.
Or, for some of us, a situation such as the current pandemic may have led to fear around the availability, accessibility, and cost of future food. This in turn may lead to restricting what we eat.
What Is The Prognosis Of Emotional Eating
Left untreated, emotional overeating can lead to complications, like difficulties achieving weight loss, obesity, and even to the development of food addiction. On the other hand, people who are prone to emotional eating are also often more responsive to stress reduction in correcting their tendency to emotionally eat compared to individuals who tend to eat less when exposed to stress.
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Physical Impact Of Stress
There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:
- High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If the stress does not let up, another hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.
- Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.
It is very easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. But there are characteristics that distinguish them.
Recognizing these subtle differences is the first step towards helping to stop emotional eating patterns.
Tips To Manage Stress Eating
Have you ever felt like eating a piece of chocolate cake or a bag of chips after a stressful day at work? If so, youre not alone. Studies show that stressful events activate systems associated with metabolism, cognition and reward.
What does this mean for your waistline? It means that the candy bar you are reaching for after a stressful event may be driven by a combination of physiological and psychological factors.
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Your Blood Sugar Is On A Roller Coaster
While many people blame excessive carbohydrate consumption for wild blood sugar swings, you might be surprised to learn that inadequate calorie consumption can cause just as many issues with blood sugar control. The most common issue that comes from chronic under-eating is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
Hypoglycemia is defined as blood sugar below 70 mg/dL, though some people experience symptoms at higher blood sugar levels. Common symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Changes in mood
Severe under-eating can easily cause hypoglycemia, especially when combined with exercise. And because many people feel better eating sugary foods when theyre hypoglycemic, this can lead to the common cycle of high and low blood sugar swings that cause chronic dieters to overeat or binge on junk foods.
This is yet another reason that the most sustainable diet for weight loss provides adequate calories to keep your hormones and blood sugar even-keeled.
You Abuse Your Body With Unnecessary Work
This is important enough to be called out as a separate point. Last but not least, you abuse your body, weighing it down with increased digestion, food processing, and extra body weight.
You make yourself more fatigued due to all that extra body weight youre carrying around, and you wonder why youre more and more tired nowadays.
For those of you who embark on rigorous exercise thereafter to offset the extra calories you took in, thats additional wear and tear youre making your body go through, when the whole thing could be avoided in the first place via a different coping mechanism.
You may look physically in shape, as if you do not overeat, but that doesnt negate the fact that you are putting your body through work that it doesnt have to go through.
A car that has been pumped with fuel and subsequently had its fuel exhausted via driving around the city for 10,000 times is never going to be in the same condition as a car that is only filled and driven where necessary. The former is going to be in a worse off condition, due to the constant usage, while the latter will be in a fresher condition. Itll be a matter of time before the former breaks down and stops functioning , before the latter does.
Likewise, our physical body does not last forever. It wears out faster or slower, depending on how we treat it.
Do you see what Im getting at?
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Biological And Environmental Factors
Stress affects food preferences. Numerous studies granted, many of them in animals have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both, even in the absence of caloric deficits. Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that damps stress-related responses and emotions, as these foods trigger dopamine and opioid releases, which protect against the negative consequences of stress. These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress, but rat studies demonstrate that intermittent access to and consumption of these highly palatable foods creates symptoms that resemble opioid withdrawal, suggesting that high-fat and high-sugar foods can become neurologically addictive A few examples from the American diet would include: hamburgers, pizza, French fries, sausages and savory pasties. The most common food preferences are in decreasing order from: sweet energy-dense food, non-sweet energy-dense food then, fruits and vegetables. This may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.
Overeating Vs Binge Eating
Both may involve mindless behavior. You eat too much without thinking about why. But there are real differences.
General examples of overeating are:
- Having more than one dessert after dinner
- Finishing a whole bag of popcorn while watching a movie
When you eat too much because of a stressful event such as a romantic breakup, it’s sometimes called “emotional eating.”
Examples of binge eating are:
- Sneaking a large bag of candy into your room and finishing it in secret
- Eating a whole cake in one sitting, and then feeling guilty
- Finishing three burgers, even when youâre already uncomfortably full
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Stress Eating: Real Or Imagined Hunger
“There are different layers to this some we understand more than others. People have learned to cope with negative emotions and make themselves feel better with food,” says Martin Binks, PhD, director of behavioral health research at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center and assistant professor at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Stress is a learned response and so is eating under stress.
If you grew up in an environment where food was used to manage emotions, you’re more likely to stress-eat, explains Binks. If you learned healthy stress management techniques growing up, you probably turn to something other than food when you’re stressed.
Stress eating also occurs because stress triggers hormones that can cause hunger. “There is evidence that there are complex hormonal symptoms involved in hunger and fullness and appetite that are influenced by stress and by sleep,” says Binks. This combination of coping mechanism and biology is why some people automatically turn to food to ease stress, while other people find different solutions.
How To Relieve Stress Without Overeating
When stress affects someone’s appetite and waistline, the individual can forestall further weight gain by ridding the refrigerator and cupboards of high-fat, sugary foods. Keeping those “comfort foods” handy is just inviting trouble.
Here are some other suggestions for countering stress:
Meditation. Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress, although much of the research has focused on high blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to pay better attention to the impulse to grab a fat- and sugar-loaded comfort food and inhibit the impulse.
Exercise. While cortisol levels vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, overall exercise can blunt some of the negative effects of stress. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation.
Social support. Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience. For example, research suggests that people working in stressful situations, like hospital emergency departments, have better mental health if they have adequate social support. But even people who live and work in situations where the stakes aren’t as high need help from time to time from friends and family.
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Seek Out Social Support
Friends, family, coworkers, and other sources of social support can help buffer the adverse effects of stress. If you cant do an in-person visit, make a phone call, attend an online meet-up, or schedule a FaceTime session.
Consider proactively scheduling events on your calendar. Make a twice-weekly date to walk with a friend. Sign up for a weekly support group or safely meet up for coffee.
The activity itself isnt as important as a social connection.
Why Do We Crave Sweets When Were Stressed
A brain researcher explains our desire for chocolate and other carbs during tough times
Although our brain accounts for just 2 percent of our body weight, the organ consumes half of our daily carbohydrate requirementsand glucose is its most important fuel. Under acute stress the brain requires some 12 percent more energy, leading many to reach for sugary snacks.
Carbohydrates provide the body with the quickest source of energy. In fact, in cognitive tests subjects who were stressed performed poorly prior to eating. Their performance, however, went back to normal after consuming food.
When we are hungry, a whole network of brain regions activates. At the center are the ventromedial hypothalamus and the lateral hypothalamus. These two regions in the upper brain stem are involved in regulating metabolism, feeding behavior and digestive functions. There is, however, an upstream gatekeeper, the nucleus arcuatus in the hypothalamus. If it registers that the brain itself lacks glucose, this gatekeeper blocks information from the rest of the body. Thats why we resort to carbohydrates as soon as the brain indicates a need for energy, even if the rest of the body is well supplied.
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