Are you someone who usually likes to indulge in a sugary treat or two after a stressful situation? That kind of eating pattern is referred to as stress eating.
Also known as emotional eating, it refers to the consumption of food as a way to deal with stress and the negative emotions that come with it.
Stress and overeating have always gone hand-in-hand — especially with what has happened in the last two years.
But stress will never go away, and a tendency to stress eat will inevitably lead to weight gain. This, in turn, increases your risk for chronic diseases.
For your overall health, here‘s what you need to know about stress eating and how you can overcome it.
Physiological and Psychological Factors Affecting Eating Habits
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 42% of U.S. adults reported unwanted weight gain at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The average weight gain was 29 pounds.
But what does stress have to do with eating in the first place? Here’s what you need to know.
The Stress-Eating Paradox
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis plays a vital role in how humans respond to stress.
When exposed to acute stress, the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) — which regulates the HPA axis — triggers a cascade of events. This includes stimulating the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is responsible for producing cortisol (the primary stress hormone).
In the face of danger, our fight or flight response is activated. This can lead to physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes.
The body diverts most of its energy to the brain and muscles to ensure your survival. Little energy is devoted to other functions, including appetite, digestion, and reproduction.
As such, appetite and food intake should be suppressed in response to stress.
However, the paradox is that the stress response can lead to either undereating or overeating.
Stress as a Threat vs. Challenge
One way to explain the stress-eating paradox would be to look into possible psychological determinants.
Our perception of stress can influence how we react. A person who feels distressed and doesn’t have the resources to cope can perceive a stressful situation as a “threat.” This, in turn, activates the HPA stress response. This leads to the release of cortisol — which can increase appetite.
On the other hand, a person who sees a situation as controllable and has adequate resources to cope with it may perceive stress as a “challenge.” This, in turn, stimulates the sympathetic-adrenomedullary (SAM) axis. The SAM leads to the release of adrenaline — which shuts down digestion.
According to one study, people who perceive stress as a “threat” are the ones who are more likely to engage in stress eating or binge eating.
Studies also suggest that women, overweight people, and those with a restrictive diet have a higher likelihood of stress eating.
The Stress, Cortisol and Weight Gain Connection
What is the link between stress and weight gain? Cortisol.
Not only does this stress hormone increase our appetite, but it is also associated with low-quality food choices. This may be why stress eaters are drawn to “comfort foods,” which are usually high in fat, sugar, and salt.
Excess cortisol due to chronic exposure to stress can also lead to an accumulation of visceral fat.
In the face of the current obesity epidemic, stress eating can increase your risk of diet-related diseases. This is especially relevant as studies have found that a higher body-mass index (BMI) was associated with increased eating during the pandemic.
How to Avoid Overeating and Stress-Related Weight Gain
We cannot avoid stress, but we can change how we respond to it. Rather than
reverting to unhealthy behaviors such as stress or emotional eating, you can choose healthier habits that won’t put your overall health at risk.
With the holidays coming up, here are some strategies that can help you avoid overeating and stress-related weight gain.
1. Practice Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is all about being more conscious about the food you eat. It’s about learning to listen to your body to see whether it is hungry or not.
With mindful eating, you also learn to look at physical cues of hunger to differentiate between emotional and physical hunger.
Numerous studies have found that mindful eating is associated with reduced cravings, decreased emotional eating behaviors, smaller portions, and lower BMI.
The holidays are just around the corner, and there’s no better time than to practice mindful eating. Don’t get carried away with the festivities. It will be a challenge to lose those extra pounds once the holidays are over.
2. Prepare Healthy Snacks Ahead of Time
According to one study, people are more likely to overeat during the afternoon or evening. This tendency is even more heightened after exposure to stress.
By preparing healthy snacks, you’ll be less likely to order takeout or settle for junk food while waiting for dinner. So even though you’re still eating to cope with a stressful situation, at least you’re eating something healthy.
3. Keep a Food Diary
A food diary can help you keep track of your eating habits. It’s a useful tool that you can use to uncover cues or triggers that lead to stress eating.
You can also keep track of times you feel hungry — and adjust your eating schedule accordingly. This can help determine whether you are eating due to physical hunger or stress.
You can also keep track of portion sizes in your food diary. While you can still indulge from time to time, this can ensure that you eat just the right amount of food.
4. Incorporate Stress-Busting Supplements
Finding other ways to deal with stress can reduce your tendency to overeat. Regular exercise, spending time with loved ones, and meditation are great stress relievers.
You can also incorporate stress-busting supplements into your daily regimen. For instance, ashwagandha is an herbal ingredient that can help lower stress and anxiety levels.
In one study, participants with chronic stress took 300 mg of ashwagandha twice daily for 60 days. They showed a significant reduction in stress levels compared to the placebo group.
You can also try Xendurance’s Creamer + Adaptogens. It is enriched with natural ingredients, including KSM-66 Ashwagandha, Reishi, and Adaptogens, which can help enhance the body’s response to stress and reduce stress-related eating.
5. Get Rid of Temptation
You’re more likely to overeat if you continue to keep a stash of indulgent treats in your home.
One study found that it was more difficult to control one’s impulses when presented with high-calorie foods than low-calorie foods.
So while you might say to yourself that you’re just having one “bite” or you’ll have a small portion, that is easier said than done.
If you must keep snacks and other treats at home for the kids, it’s better to store them in the pantry or closed cupboards. This lessens visual exposure and the temptation to indulge.
The Root Cause of Stress Eating
Stress and eating are deeply intertwined. For many of us, indulging in comfort foods is a given after a tiring or stressful day. While it may make us feel good right after, one significant trade-off is your health.
Stress eating has been linked with weight gain, which increases your risk of chronic diseases.
As such, it’s better to deal with stress head-on and use coping strategies that won’t harm your long-term health.
Remember that improving your response to stress and eating behaviors won’t happen instantaneously. Rather than restrict yourself, starting with modest and realistic goals is better. Even a 5% weight loss can already have a significant impact on your overall health.
What’s important is that you’re mindful of stress eating and commit to adopting healthy strategies to overcome this tendency.