What is Stress Eating and How to Overcome It
Gorging on cheesy snacks while working on a deadline, or eating a tub-full of ice cream to drown out a heartbreak – most of us have been there at some point of our lives.
This type of eating usually follows an emotional need, even when our body is apparently sustained. It is also (very inconveniently) directed at greasy, oily, and sugary stuff and milder foods like vegetables rarely sate this craving.
This behavior is called stress eating or emotional eating – and it happens to be one of the biggest adversaries of your optimal brain health. It leads to obesity, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance among other things, that in turn have disastrous effects for your brain, particularly cognitive processing and memory. They may seem to curb your stress for the time being, but their long-term effects actually increase the risk of Depression and Anxiety disorders, and brain degenerative diseases like Dementia.
Why do we stress-eat?
Stress-hunger may look like normal hunger, but it is physiologically much different.
Natural hunger or lack of nourishment in the body is quenched by any kind of food, whatever it may be. But we only crave high-calorie food when we stress eat, and also have very specific sort of cravings – like a specific flavor of ice-cream or a specific kind of burger.
‘Stress-hunger’ also feels different from normal hunger. Physical hunger builds up over time and causes discomfort only if we have not eaten for too long. Stress cravings, on the other hand, build up sudden, intense, and fast. There are many reasons why this happens:
Reward response – In a sudden, one-off stressful situation, we usually lose appetite. The surging adrenaline in our blood blunts down hunger until the ‘threat’ is dealt with. But chronic stress pushes our brain to its limit so that it’s unable to mitigate the ‘threat’ or trigger and instead tries to escape. High-calorie food offers the perfect getaway for your brain by providing a rush of energy. This is not harmful once in a while, but the feeling of reward these foods provide can turn this into a recurring habit, which ultimately becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Cortisol surge – Cortisol or the primary stress hormone in our blood surges when we are in any stressful situation, and the effects it produces are uncomfortable. Solving the situation brings the cortisol back to normal, but in our today’s hectic life, that is not often possible. If the stress is chronic, the cortisol never goes out of our system, it it continues to feel uncomfortable. High-calorie food helps bring down the cortisol response, and hence we crave it when we are stressed.
Evolutionary conditioning – We are evolutionarily wired to look for high-calorie food because our biology is still that of hunter-gatherer humans who did not have easy access to them. But in the 21st century, high-calorie food is just a click away, and following that instinct always would mean an excess of calories in our system. So we often have to repress that craving. But when we are stressed, our willpower is naturally lower and controlling those instinctual cravings become much harder.
How to overcome stress-eating
Identifying triggers – Stress eating is usually triggered by specific things in each of us; things that unlock our stress response. They may not always be big things; even an upsetting video on your social media feed can cause you to become stressed and crave high-calorie food. Keep a food diary to record what you are eating all day and at what time. This will help you identify patterns and avoid stress-triggers in the future.
Do physical exercise – Working out has been found to reduce the effects of cortisol and uplift mood among other things. But apart from that, it helps brings down emotional cravings by simply upping your metabolic rate and making you actually hungry at appropriate intervals, so that you don’t really care if the food you are eating is sugary, and this can be used to design a healthier diet schedule.
Surround yourself with healthy foods – Limit your access to high-calorie food in your home. Replace all sugary and cheesy snacks in your home with healthier alternatives. Uninstall quick-delivery apps from your phone. Make it harder for you to access unhealthy food while surrounding yourself with healthy ones.
Meditate – Meditation or mindfulness practices are great for overall stress management. But they can also be applied to specific food cravings. Practice eating mindfully, think about what you are eating and why. Stress eating is instinctive and happens quickly. Forcing yourself to think about it rationally makes the craving less urgent.
5-minute rule – When you have a craving, tell yourself I’ll eat after five more minutes. Don’t think “I cannot eat that”, because then your stressed-out mind will rebel. Keep deferring the craving until its time for you to take a meal, and your stomach is full.
Stress eating can be disastrous for your brain health, and almost equally difficult to avoid, and a lot of that is because the way our bodies are built. But with practice and perseverance, these cravings too can be defeated. For a healthier life, choose the latter.