We’ve all been there. A looming deadline, a never-ending to-do list – and suddenly, the fridge seems to magnetically pull you in. Stress eating, the act of consuming food in response to emotional cues rather than physical hunger, is a common stress coping mechanism. But what is the science behind why we do it, and just as important, how can we break this not-so-healthy habit?

The truth is, stress eating is a complex dance between several factors. “Science suggests that in humans it’s the interplay between behavioral, environmental, and genetic factors, that determines someone’s susceptibility to stress eating,” notes professor Kimberly Smith, who studies eating behavior in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Cortisol and appetite

Cortisol, widely known as the stress hormone, has many functions, but it can also play a big role in stress eating by increasing appetite and food intake. When we’re under pressure or anxious, our body releases hormones like cortisol, which can trigger cravings for sugary, fatty foods. These “comfort foods” can provide a temporary dopamine and serotonin boost, leading to feelings of pleasure and a sense of control. However, this is very short-term, and the cycle often ends with feelings of guilt and shame.

“How you cope with stress also can increase your susceptibility—if you have a passive or avoidant coping style,” Smith from John Hopkins adds, “that can increase your vulnerability to stress eating.”

The difference between acute and chronic stress

It’s true, stress perception can be subjective. What one person finds stressful might not faze another. However, there’s a clear distinction in how acute and chronic stress impact our appetite.

When facing a temporary acute  stressful situation, like barely avoiding a car accident or making a public speech, our desire to eat often dips, explains Laura Holsen, a clinical neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

On the other hand, chronic stress – think an ongoing work strain – can lead to increased appetite and food intake. This is because levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, tend to rise and stay elevated, according to Dr. Holsen.

“Chronic stress also leads to over-activation of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which can result in a chronic increase in cortisol, which increases appetite and the drive for food,” says Smith from John Hopkins.

Controlling stress-related eating

So, how do we stop reaching for the bag of chips or ice cream carton when the pressure mounts? Clinical psychologist Rachel Goldman, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, advises people to cultivate “a coping toolbox” that can be used to manage stress and help you feel more in control of your eating and your life. Here are some tools and tips to help you stop stress eating:

  1. Mindful Munching: As with most habits, the first step in controlling them is to recognize the pattern – become aware of your stress eating patterns. Keep a food journal and jot down what you eat, when you eat it, and how you were feeling before and after. This can help identify emotional triggers and cravings.
  2. De-Stress, Don’t De-stress-Eat: Find healthy ways to manage stress that don’t involve food. Exercise is a fantastic stress reliever – take a yoga class, do weight training, or simply taking a brisk walk can do wonders for both your body and mind. Exercise can also release the feel good chemicals associated with stress eating. So, a regular exercise routine can provide a steady amount of rewards your brain is looking for. Also, relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation can also be helpful.
  3. Feed Your Body, Not Your Feelings: When stress strikes, resist the urge to raid the pantry. Instead, reach for healthy alternatives that are still satisfying. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and yogurt are great options that provide sustained energy without the guilt trip.
  4. Reframe Your Hunger: Not all hunger pangs are created equal. Learn to differentiate between physical hunger (gradual onset, satisfied by a balanced meal) and emotional hunger (sudden craving, often for specific comfort foods).
  5. Don’t Skip Meals: Skipping meals can actually worsen stress eating. Aim for regular meals and healthy snacks throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels stable and cravings at bay.
  6. Seek Support: You don’t have to go through this alone. Talk to a friend, family member, or therapist about your stress eating. Write down your feelings. Sharing your struggles can be a huge weight off your shoulders.
  7. Be Kind to Yourself: Remember, breaking a habit takes time. And millions are going through the same challenges. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip up. Acknowledge it, learn from it, and get back on track with your healthy coping mechanisms.

Stress eating is a common challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable one. By understanding the science behind the why and employing these tips, you can break the cycle and find healthier ways to manage the pressures of life.

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