Life is full of stressors such as painful break ups, important work projects, and paying bills. When these stressful events occur, you may have noticed an increased tendency to gravitate toward the refrigerator.
And it turns out you’re not alone—38 percent of adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress, according to the American Psychological Association. The question is how can stress eating be prevented?
Stress, particularly in high amounts, can be unpleasant and leave us feeling overwhelmed, rundown, and anxious. Normally we want to avoid these painful feelings so we may seek relief in a bag of potato chips or a tub of ice cream. (Of the 38 percent who reported stress eating, 33 percent said they did so as a way to distract them from stress). When we aren’t happy with the moment we’re in, whether due to stress or other uncomfortable emotions, we turn to more pleasurable activities, like eating, which provide temporary solace. Typically, the foods we crave are high in fat and carbohydrates, and release dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain, which may help explain the continual trips to the kitchen.
Unfortunately, this short-term fix can lead to weight gain and health problems associated with overeating such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Stress eating is like putting a small adhesive bandage on a broken arm. Rather than get to the root cause of why we’re stressed out, we cover it up with fast food and sugary treats. If we don’t deal with the stress itself we become vulnerable to the effects it can have on both the body and mind, including raised blood pressure, digestive problems, increased risk of depression, and many more.
Research Behind Stress Eating
Researchers have found that cortisol, the primary stress hormone, helps regulate the body’s response to stress. However, too much cortisol can cause sleep disruption, anxiety, and increased appetite. Cortisol also increases general motivation, which could include our motivation to eat, according to Harvard Medical School. When a stressful episode subsides, cortisol levels should fall back to normal. However, if the body stays stressed, cortisol could remain high.
Chronic stress can also increase ghrelin, which is often referred to as the “hunger hormone.” Usually released in the stomach, ghrelin is thought to send hunger signals to the brain. In a study conducted by UT Southwestern Medical Center, researchers found that chronic stress in mice caused a raise in ghrelin levels. This raise in ghrelin was associated with a decrease in behaviors related to symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, researchers noted the unfortunate side effects of increased appetite and corresponding weight gain when the hormone increased.
In addition to poor eating, when we’re stressed we tend to get less restful sleep, drink more alcohol, and be less active—all contributors of weight gain.
How to Prevent It
Fortunately, there are ways to break the cycle of stress to prevent stress eating. Here are some suggestions.
Practicing mindfulness can reduce stress and curb weight gain, according to a 2011 study by the University of California San Francisco. The participants, all overweight females, who experienced the greatest stress reduction tended to lose the most belly fat. According to the researchers, practicing mindfulness trains the brain to take notice of the tendency to want to reach for an unhealthy snack before actually acting on it. By recognizing what you’re feeling, you’re more likely to select a healthier option.
Practice mindfulness by sitting quietly for 10 to 20 minutes in the morning and evening … Simply observe your breath and any bodily sensations without judgment. If the mind begins to wander, redirect your focus back to your breath.
You can also practice mindful eating by chewing slowly, taking notice of the smell, color, and texture of your food, and turning off any distractions.
Turn Off the TV
Eating can serve as an unhealthy distraction when you’re stressed, especially when you eat in front of the television. Television viewing has been linked with an increase in unhealthy food consumption, particularly fast food and energy dense snacks, according to a study conducted by the University of Loughborough.
Try limiting time spent watching television, particularly while eating meals.
Physical activity actually reduces stress levels, improves mood, and increases focus and concentration. It also releases endorphins, a hormone that induces positive feelings in the body.
Choose an activity you enjoy, even if it’s simply going for a walk, and make it a part of your daily routine. Some activities such as yoga can have elements of both exercise and meditation. Just be mindful of your body and don’t over exhaust yourself.
Establishing strong, supportive relationships may decrease the urge to indulge in stressful eating by inducing feelings of belongingness and self-worth. Moreover, research by Carleton University found that unsupportive social interactions were linked to emotional eating.
Calling up a friend to chat or meeting co-workers for coffee can strengthen your relationships, and activities such as volunteering and joining a gym can expand your social network. Keep in mind the goal is to reduce stress levels so steer clear of relationships and situations that may increase them.
When you’re stressed and reaching for an unhealthy snack, ask yourself, “What am I stressed about?” Get to the core of why you are stressed and anxious, so then you can do something about it. Sometimes the answer may be obvious and other times it may take some digging.
To uncover why you’re stressed, try journaling, meditating, taking a quiet walk through nature, or talking things out with a friend or professional.
Participating in activities that you genuinely enjoy will release dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain that can also be obtained through eating. Opting to partake in a fun, healthful activity that releases the chemical will make you less likely to seek it through a piece of cake. Find something that truly brings you pleasure and joy. Tip: Think of an activity you enjoyed doing as a child.
- Eat a healthful diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
- Take a daily multivitamin containing vitamins A, C, and B-complex, and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and zinc.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, both of which can increase cortisol levels.
- Get restful, quality sleep.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.