You get home from a long day of work. You’re tired. You’re stressed about the never ending To Do list, the laundry, and the work projects you haven’t gotten done yet. And that’s when the stress eating begins!
What’s the last thing you want to do? Cook a healthy meal. Or eat a healthy meal even if it’s already cooked. You want junk food. You start mindlessly snacking on a bag of chips- almost as if you have no control. Your mind is tired and you don’t want to think about it. You know it’s sabotaging your weight loss goal, but you do it anyways.
Why? Why do we feel the uncontrollable need to binge eat junk food when we’re stressed?
The good news: it’s “technically” not your fault. It’s not always just a matter of discipline. Chronic stress creates chemical and hormonal changes in the body, making it extremely hard to “say no” to bad eating habits.
What is stress?
Stress is the state of mental or emotional strain resulting from very demanding circumstances. There are three different types of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
Acute stress happens day to day. It’s the stress of sitting in a traffic jam or hurrying through the lunch rush. It can be good stress as well- like riding a roller coaster or skiing down a steep hill. Episodic acute stress is acute stress happening too often, such as the busy hours of a holiday season. It typically comes to an end after a few weeks.
Chronic stress is the acute stress that lingers. For example, a difficult conversation with your boss is a version of acute stress, but if it doesn’t come to a resolution and, instead, stays with you for days or weeks, it is constantly wearing on you.
The physical responses to acute stress – higher heart rate, rise in blood pressure, or breathing changes – are all very normal. It’s part of the “fight or flight” response the body has in order to deal with the stress instantly.
Chronic stress, however, is the detrimental one. It’s hard to feel. It’s hard to admit that you’re under stress, because it’s “normal” to just be busy and live with it. Your body is in a very mild “fight or flight” response mode over time, and with no real chance to recover and settle down, the adverse effects start adding up.
When stress isn’t dealt with it causes mental, emotional, and physical effects such as:
- Skin and hair problems (acne, psoriasis, hair loss)
- Gastrointestinal problems (GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon)
- Cardiovascular disease (heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke)
- Depression, anxiety, personality disorders, eating disorders, and sexual dysfunction
How is stress causing bad eating habits?
Unhealthy eating habits such as eating too quickly, endless snacking, skipping meals, and mindless or emotional eating are often coping mechanisms for an overworked and stressed mind.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released by your adrenal glands in order to deal with whatever is stressing you at the moment. Cortisol’s job is to alert the body to get into “fight or flight” mode. It sends glucose to the bloodstream so that your body has the energy to “fight.” This increase of glucose in the bloodstream leaves you feeling hungry and craving high-fat and sugary foods in order to replenish the glucose stores.
And when you are stressed, your body will store more fat than when it is at rest. So the combination of overeating sugary foods while the body actively works to store fat derails your weight loss goals. As the body gains more fat, it makes it harder and harder to want to work on health, therefore putting you into this endless cycle of stressing, eating, and stressing more.
Thirty-eight percent of adults admit to dealing with overeating unhealthy foods when they are stressed- and most of it is weekly if not daily! It’s happening often enough that it feels impossible to ever reach health goals.
Our stress eating problem is: we’re fighting an emotional issue with a food solution, rather than an emotional solution.
“When you have an emotional problem, it needs an emotional solution, not a food solution. That is really the only way to overcome emotional eating long-term”
So how do we break this cycle? We work on habits that will not only de-stress us, but promote healthy eating at the same time.
Here are 7 tips for managing both stress and healthy eating habits.
1. Take a 10-20 minute walk daily.
It can be around your home, workplace, parking lot, or up and down stairs (where ever you can!). Exercise has been proven to buffer the effects of stress. It’s also a great distraction. It can get your mind off of tough situations. But, do it without your phone or headphones. Constantly taking in information whether it’s a podcast or music is not a stress reliever. Give yourself some time to think/breathe/enjoy some quiet.
2. Put the phone away 20 minutes before bed.
Screentime before bed resets your circadian rhythm. Your brain is being told it’s still daytime causing restless sleep. Feeding your brain more info right before it’s time to relax makes you toss and turn, thinking about all the things from the day or things that still need to be done. It increases your stress. That coupled with a bad night’s sleep causes willpower with food to go out the window.
3. Drink water!!
It sounds simple, but staying hydrated keeps inflammation in the body down. Stress also wreaks havoc on our skin (hello frown lines and wrinkles!) and water is one of the best things you can give your skin and body. It will help with energy levels, metabolism function, and overall health.
Find 5 minutes (3-4x a week) where you go into a dark spot, turn your notifications off, and set a timer. Just sit and breathe for those 5 minutes. Let your body completely relax and take a full break from everything going on. Even moms with littles can do this for 5 minutes. No excuses!
5. Have healthy food accessible.
This is a big one. Results are not accidental. If you fail to plan, you will not succeed. Take the time to buy healthy (pre-cooked if needed) options to keep in the fridge and pantry so that when you’re short on time, or are too tired to cook, you have the options you need available. You’ll be less likely to choose fast food!
6. Put the phone down while eating.
You’re not mindful of what and how much you’re eating if you’re lost in scrolling or watching a show. That constant intake of information can also increase your stress levels, which leads to eating out of emotion rather than the need to simply refuel what was depleted.
7. Find healthy swaps for those comfort foods you desire when stress is high.
There’s often nothing wrong with the food we like to snack on, as long as we can control the amount we eat. For example: instead of a whole bottle of wine at night, have one glass + one cup of berries. Or, instead of a pint of ice cream, make a high-protein smoothie. It’s easy to stop yourself when full if you’re eating the things that give you the nutrients you need (protein, fruit, whole grains, etc). It’s very hard to stop yourself from overeating on things that are not nutrient-dense (ice cream, wine). So swap in nutrient-dense food items to help give yourself some control when you feel emotions might take over.
When it comes to de-stressing, something is better than nothing. Start with one habit, and build on it weekly until you are a de-stressed, healthy, happy individual!
If you want more guidance on nutrition and what you need to do to manage your health despite stress, email Jalpa to set up a consultation!
Jalpa is a registered dietitian and nutritionist with a Master’s degree in Health & Nutrition from Brooklyn College, CUNY in New York. She also holds a Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management through the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, CDR.
- American Psychological Association. (2013, January 1). Stress and eating. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/eating
- Zschucke E, Renneberg B, Dimeo F, Wustenberg T, Strohle A. The stress-buffering effect of acute exercise: Evidence for HPA axis negative feedback. Psychoneuroendocrinology. January 2015; 51: 414-425. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030645301400403X.