Why do I eat the wrong things when I am stressed? Such a good question! What is it about stress that makes us abandon our healthy eating goals? Why can a bad day find us running for a hot fudge sundae or potato chips instead of carrot sticks?
Some of the stress eating response is in our body. When the stress hormone cortisol is high, there is an increased craving for salty and sweet foods. In fact, one source says that “cheese balls are as addictive as crack” to the stressed person. Ouch!
Cortisol also impacts the efficacy of leptin, the hormone that tells us we are satisfied. This leads us to overeat. Unfortunately, cortisol also increases insulin, which takes those extra calories and stores them as fat, especially – you guessed it – in the belly.
Our stressed body is saying, “I want ice cream, chips and nachos!” and those carrot sticks don’t stand a chance. Add onto that the nervous energy of stress that can make us orally fidgety and want to bite everything from our nails to some crunchy junk food.
Another part of the stress response affects our mind. When people are under stress, their negative beliefs tend to predominate. Have you ever said to yourself, “I don’t care what I eat, I’ve had a bad day so I deserve to eat something good?” Feeling out of control in one area of life can make us feel out of control when it comes to making healthy food choices. Other times eating can be a way to stuff our emotions so we don’t have to deal with what is stressing us.
Steps to Stomp Out Stress Eating
Even though our rational brain does take a break when we are stressed, we are not bound by our physiology. Here are some steps to overcome our body and our mind when stressed to avoid the further stress of feeling guilty about our food choices.
- Stay Well Nourished. Keep your appetite stable even when nothing else feels stable. Eating 5 small meals with protein and high fiber foods will keep the blood sugar balanced, and prevent the adrenal gland/cortisol from having to deal with the stress of low blood sugar as well.
- Emphasize Whole Foods that Help Mood. Food sources that help with serotonin production (a calming brain chemical) are foods high in B vitamins(brown rice, chicken, corn, eggs, leafy greens, legumes, meat, nuts, peas, sunflower seeds), Calcium (almonds, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, fish with bones, sesame seeds, tofu), Magnesium (leafy greens, brown rice, sesame seeds, shrimp, salmon), Tryptophan (turkey, soy, peanuts, almonds) and Essential Fatty Acids (fish oils found in mackerel, salmon, sardine, tuna, and vegetables oils like walnut oil or flax oil).
- Plan to Prevent. The urge to stress eat can arise quickly, so be prepared with healthy snacks. The best defense is a good offense and snacks that include both protein and complex carbohydrates (cheese and whole grain crackers for example) will help by-pass the desire for high-calorie comfort foods.
- Rate Your Hunger. Before stress eating, stop and evaluate first, “Am I hungry or not?” “Often, negative emotions trigger what feels like hunger but is really just a habitual response to eat to get rid of negative feelings, “ says Elissa S. Epel, PhD, researcher on stress and eating. We should eat when we are about a 4 out of 10 on the hunger scale and before reaching starving which is “1” on the scale.
- Mindful Eating to Manage Habits and Hunger. Derail your automatic trip to the cookie jar by becoming more aware of food triggers and eating patterns. Mindful eating encourages us to pay attention to the physical cues of fullness or hunger and to use this information to know when to stop.
- Fool Yourself with Healthy Foods to Combat Cravings. Difficult moments bring on the craving for specific foods (crunchy, salty, sweet). We can keep cut-up carrots and celery ready in the refrigerator, or find other healthy snacks with crunch to feed that urge. Fruit provides natural sweetness that can reduce the urge for high sugar items.
- Keep Junk Food Out of Sight, Out of Mind. If others in the household demand stress eating temptations (chips, cookies, etc.), keep those foods out of sight so they don’t trigger a craving. For example, ice cream can be hidden behind a bag of frozen vegetables. Or, if seeing a fast food restaurant triggers cravings, find an alternate route home.
- Manage Your Stress. What choices for relieving stress would leave you feeling less guilty or less like wanting to beat yourself up when life is already beating you up? Many find stress-busting alternatives like going for a walk or run, listening to music, calling a friend for a chat, enjoying a pet or hobby, or just sitting quietly provide stress release without the negative consequences of a junk food binge. Check out https://www.stress.org/ or this excerpt from my book, “Sick and Tired, to Healthy and Inspired” https://knowaboutnutrition.com/stress-awareness-month/ for more ideas.
The bottom line is that stress will always be around. Some days we may be a Conqueror of Healthy Habits (the name of my private Facebook group) and some days we may fall into the trap of stress eating. Celebrate those wins and continue to practice until stress-less eating becomes the norm.
Conquerors of Healthy Habits Facebook group for support and ideas: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1104725853307798