Stress unleashes all sorts of hormones in the body. Typical daily stress is usually fleeting; the body responds in reactive and calming ways with the right cycle of hormones. But when the stress is persistent, the body reacts differently. The adrenal glands release cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite. Cortisol levels fall once a stressful episode ends, but cortisol likewise stays elevated when the stressful emotions endure, so does the appetite.
What Is Stress Eating?
Stress may come to us because of work, health, finances, and relationships. These are found to be the possible causes of stress eating (sometimes also called emotional eating).
Stress has also been found to affect food preferences. Studies have seen physical or emotional distress as being linked to a higher intake of fatty and sugary food. This is likely due to the heightened cortisol and insulin levels and possibly the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. Food rich in fat and sugar is known as “comfort food,” likely because they have counteractive effects against stress-related bodily responses and emotions.
Negative emotions may cause a feeling of emotional emptiness. Food is the most common and accessible means to fill that void and create a false sense of wholeness. Instinctively reaching for food may also be a form of coping by retreating from social support and activities; out of not being able to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger; and the high cortisol levels.
Stress or emotional eating is an issue that affects both men and women. But according to different studies, emotional eating is more common among women than with men.
The Effects of Stress Eating
People who are prone to stress eating may engage in it several times in a week, maybe even more, in the hopes of suppressing the negative feelings overcoming them. This excessive eating, in turn, may result in feelings of guilt or shame, paving the way to yet another cycle of emotional eating. Weight gain then becomes a very likely effect.
Then, weight gain increases risks for weight-related health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or fatigue. Also, weight gain is, in itself, a source of stress. This could cause someone to lose sleep, drink, and engage in other unhealthy “escape behaviors.”
Overeating can sometimes cause stomach pains and nausea. In addition, the psychological impact of emotional eating is quite severe and may persist for days the overeating episode.
How to Prevent Stress Eating
Once you notice that you might be indulging in stress eating, one of the easiest ways to curb the behavior early on is to purge the pantry of high-fat and high-sugar foods. But health experts would recommend going beyond this and getting to the root of the problem by engaging in activities that can counter stress:
Meditation: Meditation can alleviate stress and diminish the risk of high blood pressure and other heart diseases. Meditation benefits mental health by improving focus, concentration, and self-awareness. Thus, meditation may aid people in being better at making the distinction between emotional hunger and actual hunger, thus inhibiting the impulse.
Exercise: Regular exercise can dull the negative impact of stress. Cardio and endurance exercises promote heart health and keep your body in good condition. Better yet, look into activities like yoga and tai chi. These exercises integrate elements of exercise, meditation, and deep breathing. Doing exercise regularly will likewise address one of the leading effects of stress eating, which is weight gain.
Self-care: We’ve all heard the saying, “look good to feel good.” Taking care of your appearance may go a long way in countering stress. If the seemingly uncontrollable weight gain causes your stress, you can facilitate the process of getting rid of unwanted body fats through cryolipolysis or fat freezing.
Social support: Keeping your family, friends, and other support systems close may provide a buffer against the stress we all encounter in our lives. Research suggests that individuals working under stressful conditions such as the police force, hospital emergency rooms, stock trading floors, and so on tend to have better mental health if they have adequate social support systems available to them.
Stress eating can put a damper on your weight goals. You can mainly avoid this by seeking out ways to relieve the stress without resorting to overeating. Whenever you notice an increase in the urge to eat, stop and examine yourself: is this actual hunger? Am I feeling emotional about something and just relying on food for temporary satisfaction? Taking the time to ask and truthfully answer yourself allows your brain to establish healthier connections with food and, ultimately, help you break the habit of associating painful emotions with food.