If you’ve ever found yourself in the kitchen staring into the refrigerator for relief after having received bad news, had a serious disagreement with someone or maybe just endured a bad day at work, you’ve fallen victim to stress eating. This unhealthy habit is often a cause of weight gain and can have emotional ramifications.
Also called “emotional eating,” stress eating is triggered by strong emotions that cause your body to release the hormone cortisol. This hormone causes the body to crave foods that are high in fat and sugar. Additionally, reaching for unhealthy foods in stressful or emotional times can become a habit.
The triggers of stress eating don’t last forever, but our built-in stress response doesn’t always shut itself off when it should. This can result in chronic stress eating and higher and higher levels of cortisol. During this type of eating, people usually tend to eat fewer meals and not as many vegetables as they would normally. People who react to stress by eating will tend to gain weight more often than those who don’t.
Here are five ways to combat stress eating and break the stress response cycle:
It’s easy to fall into this habit if you aren’t giving your body the regular nutrients it needs. Eat every four to five hours to help keep your blood sugar, hormones and emotions balanced. The more balanced you are, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with stress without resorting to food.
Complex carbs will help make you feel good by releasing serotonin, a chemical that combats the stress hormone. Complex carbohydrates include whole grain cereals and bread, brown rice, vegetables, beans, fruits and nonfat milk.
Learn to recognize how stress makes you feel and then train your brain to stop before eating and ask yourself if you are truly hungry or just responding to the stress of the moment. Think about when you last ate to see if your body needs more food or if the hunger or craving is just an emotional response. Negative emotions can make you think you are hungry when you’re not.
Find ways other than eating junk food to deal with your stress. Keep healthy snacks on hand. Try small packets of nuts, whole fruit and string cheese. Exercise is one of the best stress relievers as physical activity induces the production of endorphins, aka “feel good hormones.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed, emotional or stressed out, try going for a brisk walk or hitting the gym rather than sitting down with a bowl of ice cream. Meditation, hot baths and even sex are also ways you can shut off the stress hormone output. These all stimulate the same pleasure centers in the brain but don’t have adverse effects on your health.
Freeze cookies to make them more difficult to get to. Don’t intentionally drive past your favorite ice cream haunt when you’re upset. What’s going to stop you from going in? Keep cut up veggies and fresh fruit on hand so you’ll be more likely to reach for something nutritious in stressful times.
Long term, turning to food for comfort rather than fixing the cause of your stresscan have serious health consequences. If you’re struggling to deal with your emotions, schedule an appointment to talk to your physician. Your health care provider can help you develop a healthy plan to deal with the sources of stress in your life.