Stress affects every aspect of our lives, of course, including the way we eat. Studies show that stress is related to increased emotional eating, weight gain, disordered eating patterns, eating dysregulation (becoming unresponsive or insensitive to internal hunger and satiety cues), obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Stress eating patterns can become frequent when under continual or long-term stress. In the following article, we’ll talk about how to break out of these patterns and cycles.
Mechanisms of Stress on the Body
Stress can be seen in our bodies in many ways. Some of these symptoms include musculoskeletal pain, headaches, migraines, irregular heartbeat, fatigue, hormonal disorders, increased cortisol levels, weight gain or weight loss, gut issues (irregular bowel movements, flatulence), etc. Often, chronic pain looks quite different on every person, as each and every body is vastly different. Stress can also cause us to run to the so-called “comfort foods” - those high fatty, sugary, carb-dense foods that our bodies seem to crave in times of high stress. Let’s dig into this a bit more.
The Science of Stress
When we are under stress, our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. It is made by your adrenal glands and is responsible for fueling your body’s “flight or fight'' response under crisis or stress; it increases the amount of sugar in your blood, increases your brain's ability to use glucose, and increases available substances for your body to use to self repair. Cortisol is a good thing under a crisis situation. However when the crisis becomes prolonged, too much cortisol in your system can become a problem. It can lead to digestive issues, anxiety, weight gain, headaches, and sleep problems. Under stress, insulin levels also increase as our bodies need to utilize glucose for energy. Many studies have shown that an increased intake in fat and sugar occur along with heightened levels of these hormones, which contributes to the stress eating response.
The Eating Stress Cycle
When under stress, many people experience a cycle of stress eating. It goes like this: you experience stress (e.g. a work deadline, a financial stretch, a child who just made a bad decision, etc.), then you find yourself walking to the pantry for something salty to distract you or to help you calm down. After eating half a bag of corn chips and salsa, you’re left with a feeling of guilt that you just blew your good day of eating and exercise. As the weeks progress, you have a couple more rounds of this, and you know there must be a change. Maybe it's best to try a diet or cut out all the carbs. And, oops, before you know it, you’ve plunged yourself into restriction dieting, adding to your stress, then eating three slices of the leftover birthday cake from a birthday party. Help! When will this ever end?
How about a list to put this into perspective? The eating cycle stress can include:
- Experiencing stress
- Eating to cope
- Having negative feelings (shame, frustration, hopelessness, self hate)
- Vowing to do differently
- Engaging in over restriction
- Repeating the cycle
While this cycle is different for each person who manages their stress with food, there are definitely some commonalities (i.e. you are not in this alone!). Take some time this week and think about how you might identify similar patterns or habits in your own life.
Breaking the Cycle
The good news is that there is a way out of these cycles! Here are some helpful tips on how to overcome stress eating and become more in-tune with your body’s response to stressful situations.
- Awareness: Identifying your triggers is key when wanting to break out of the cycles of stress eating. Taking time to identify the environment or circumstances that you find yourself reaching for the chocolate, soda, chips, etc. is an important first step.
- Keep a journal: Try keeping a journal on your phone or on paper, and observe when you feel stressed or gravitating to the break room, kitchen, or pantry. What emotion are you trying to escape? When you are hit with a craving, take a second to think about what you are feeling or why you are craving that snack. Does your body actually need something else? Be honest with yourself.
- Find a different coping strategy: Expanding your toolbox is key! What are some alternate distractions or coping tools that you could do that don’t have to do with food? Try drinking water, doing some push ups, running down the hall to stretch your legs, deep breathing, turning on your favorite song, going on a walk. The options are endless.
- Manage stress throughout the week: Plan workouts and exercise regularly. Make sure you are maintaining a regular eating schedule. Get adequate sleep and rest time (make sure you get rest on your days off!). Sleep is especially important because when you don’t get enough sleep your body produces a hormone called “ghrelin” that actually stimulates your appetite. Ghrelin also decreases the amount of the hormone leptin, which tells your brain that you are full. This combination makes it much harder to resist cravings.
- Fail forward: First of all, be kind to yourself. You will not be perfect the first couple of go-arounds. One thing to remember is that you will build long-term habits when you consistently apply these principles to your eating patterns. No matter if you have a bad day, a good day, or just a stressful day, you are still learning about yourself and therefore are better off than yesterday!
Share your experience with us by leaving a comment below. Have questions or want to learn more? Ask here; we're always listening!
Written for Fitness Blender by Natalia Holguin, RDN LDN CPT
Certified Nutrition Coach
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- Harvard Health Publishing. “Why Stress Causes People to Overeat.” Harvard Health, 13 Oct. 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat.
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- Forman, Evan M., et al. “Comparison of Acceptance-Based and Standard Cognitive-Based Coping Strategies for Craving Sweets in Overweight and Obese Women.” Eating Behaviors, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 64–68. Crossref, doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.10.016.
- Gear, Alex. “Emotional Eating. How to Break the Cycle.” Nutrition For Life, 15 Apr. 2018, www.nutritionforlife.co.uk/blog/emotional-eating-how-to-break-the-cycle.