April is Stress Awareness Month which has us thinking about the relationship between the stress in our lives and how that impacts the way we fill our plates. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), those people who eat when they are stressed often do so with little awareness of what they are eating. Additionally, when eating to alleviate stress, people are more likely to choose calorically dense food that is also high in sugar and fat. When you combine these two it shows that stress eating often results in eating a lot of unhealthy calories without really being aware of what we are putting in our mouths.
The Link Between Stress and Eating
The urge to eat when we feel stressed is actually a biological process gone a little awry. To understand why stress eaters choose the foods they choose and eat without seeming to pay attention to what or how much they are eating, we need to understand a little about our body’s stress response. When presented with danger our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol which immediately preps your body to respond. Under normal conditions, the stress response is designed to shut itself down as soon as the danger has passed. You may recognize this as the “fight or flight response.”
This worked much better when the danger we were responding to was actually something requiring us to either run or fight like being confronted by a wild predator. In today’s world, the stress we experience is much different. If you are faced with meeting an impossible deadline or losing your job for example, having a body that is ready to run or fight isn’t going to be much help. Additionally, these kinds of stress triggers can lead to chronic stress which happens when the natural process to shut off the stress response stops working.
Chronic stress comes with a whole host of health concerns because your body remains in a hyper-vigilant state that is unnatural. Your metabolism remains depressed and your body craves high calorie foods that contain easy energy boosters like fat and sugar to build up energy reserves. These cravings are your body’s way of seeking to fill a non-existent biological need since missing your deadline is very different from getting eaten by a tiger. Unfortunately, slower metabolism plus lots of high calorie food packed with sugar and fat leads to obesity not to stress relief.
How to Side Step the Stress Eating Response
The CDC research noted above found that not everyone turns to food when their stress levels skyrocket. The most likely people to stress eat are women and those who are intentionally limiting their caloric intake i.e. dieters. If you are a stress eater, your best defense is to have strategies that will help you deal with your stress without opening your mouth. Here are some tips that can help you overcome your automatic stress eating response:
- Practice stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, relaxation, and breathing.
- Pause before you put anything in your mouth and ask yourself if you are actually hungry. Often this pause is enough to alleviate the low eating awareness.
- Use a food diary to keep track of when you eat, what you eat, why you eat, and what you were feeling or doing while eating. This can help you identify stress eating triggers.
- Fight the urge to eat when you are bored by doing something else like taking a walk, working on a hobby, or reading a book.
- Stock your house with healthy food. If you are stress eating and all you have is carrots you can limit the damage if you aren’t able to control the behavior.