How to Stop Stress-Eating

business woman stands in kitchen beside fruit dish drinks orange juice looks at laptop
by Helena Popovic

Sally Obermeder and Ryan Phelan from Channel 7’s The Daily Edition asked Dr Helena to provide some answers. Here is a transcript of their conversation.

1. Why do we eat in response to stress?

When we’re stressed our adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol which is a known appetite stimulant. Cortisol also makes us eat faster and causes the body to lay down fat around the abdomen. What we tend to label as a ‘beer belly’ is more likely to be a stress belly.

The other reason we eat when we’re stressed is that we’re not taught how to manage negative feelings so we try to block them out. We feel pressured to keep up a brave front and to keep going so we use food to numb unwanted emotions. In some some cases this is a learned response from childhood because well-meaning parents comforted us with food when we were upset.  

2. Why in particular do we reach for junk food? Why not a bowl of grapes or an apple?

Once again cortisol is to blame. It increases our desire for sugar-rich foods because sugar is the fastest way to give us a shot of energy to help us deal with the stress. 

Also when we’re in a negative mood our our taste buds are less sensitive and foods seem less sweet. Experiments with soccer fans in the UK have found that if your team loses, dessert doesn’t taste as sweet as if your team wins! So when we’re unhappy, we need something super sweet to get our usual experience of sweetness. We instinctively reach for the caramel mud cake rather than the apple because the apple tastes sour.

3. Some people don’t even realize they’re engaging in stress-eating. How can you learn to recognize if that’s what you’re doing?

Before you reach for food, ask yourself: ‘Am I really hungry or do I just want to change how I’m feeling?’ Then pause and become aware of any emotions that come up for you.

Also notice if you tend to eat in response to specific triggers or situations. For instance: whenever you have a looming deadline or after an argument or in anticipation of having to deal with something difficult or unpleasant. 

Do you mindlessly snack while working at your computer? Mindless eating can be the result of repeated stress-eating that becomes an unconscious habit.

stress-eating is a common issue

4. What’s your advice for breaking the habit of stress-eating?

  1. When you feel the urge to eat in response to stress, the most powerful thing you can do is to simply sit with the feeling and allow yourself to feel it without acting on it. Don’t try and block the emotion or fight the temptation to eat. Actually feel the temptation; feel the craving. Although it will initially feel uncomfortable, the discomfort doesn’t last. After a few minutes it will dissipate and you’ll actually feel a sense of relief and peace. Some people feel a surge of energy after they’ve allowed an uncomfortable feeling to pass through them like a wave. 
  2. If that seems too daunting, another strategy is to immediately bring to mind a pleasurable emotional memory – for example, the romantic dinner you enjoyed on Valentine’s Day. The pleasant thoughts will stimulate your brain to produce the hormone oxytocin which has a calming effect. 
  3. You can also simply close your eyes and take slow deep breaths. Slow conscious breathing short-circuits stress because it relaxes our muscles, slows down our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure. It also dampens down activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala which is activated during stress.   
  4. Another effective technique is to spend a few minutes writing down a list of things you feel grateful for. Practicing gratitude triggers the brain to release a cocktail of feel-good chemicals and reduces the urge to reach for food. Gratitude also shifts our perspective and improves our capacity for problem-solving. 

To learn more about managing stressful situations see: Stress Management

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