Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling stressed or moody you start craving food? You probably have heard this called stress eating, but you may not realize just how intimately connected stress and your eating habits are, and understanding this connection can be a game changer when it comes to keeping your mind and body as healthy as possible.
Whether you find yourself falling into unhealthy eating habits when you’re feeling stressed or you simply want to improve your relationship with stress and food, understanding how the two are connected is a great place to start.
How Does Stress Affect Your Eating Habits?
Let’s start by making sure we are all on the same page—every person is different which means that we all perceive and cope with our stress, emotions, and hunger cues differently. Because of this, the way our eating habits change when we are stressed isn’t the same across the board. With that being said, researchers have noticed that we tend to lean in one of two directions—eating more than usual or not eating at all.
The type of stress we are experiencing often plays a role in how our bodies react to it. Generally, acute or short-term stress tends to lead to a decrease in appetite while chronic or long-term stress is linked to an increase in appetite, specifically for food items that are high in sugars, fats, and calories. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it provides a good foundation for helping you understand what is happening within your body during stressful times.
So, why do we feel the need to eat more, or sometimes less, when we’re stressed? The short explanation is a hormone called cortisol, which is the hormone your body releases as a response to stress.
For some people, the presence of cortisol in their system can suppress their appetite and cause them to eat less or go for long periods of time without eating. However, having cortisol in your system for longer periods of time, like when you are experiencing chronic stress, it’s more likely that your appetite will be stimulated. Think about it this way. Our body’s natural fight or flight response was originally intended to help protect our ancestors from dangerous predators in the wild. When they were in immediate danger of being attacked by a predator in the wild, this response kicked in to help them have the energy they needed to get out of the situation.
In this case, the initial response to stress is to reduce feelings of hunger so your brain and body can focus on the physical activities required to get out of the life-threatening situations, such as running to safety or fighting off the threat. However, once the threat no longer exists, the human body needs to replenish all the extra energy it just expended, which is done by eating and sleeping.
While this natural response was useful for our ancestors in a life-or-death situation, the reality is that in modern society, most of the sources of our stress aren’t life-or-death. We rarely, if ever, have to worry about being eaten by a bear or mountain lion, but we are likely to encounter societal pressures, work or school deadlines, financial situations, and relationship conflicts that trigger the same type of stress response within our bodies.
While short bursts of stress may cause you to eat a little less for a while, the real concern when it comes to our eating habits, and frankly our overall health, is the result of chronic stress that keeps cortisol in our systems for extended periods of time.
Researchers have found that over time cortisol can lead to overeating and unhealthy eating habits in a few ways. First, this stress hormone can stimulate the neurons in your hypothalamus that send the hunger signal to the rest of the brain. This leads to your brain believing you are hungry and telling you to eat even when your body doesn’t necessarily need the extra energy.
Additionally, cortisol also interacts with the hypothalamus in another way—by reducing its sensitivity to a hormone called leptin. Leptin is one of two hormones that help regulate your appetite, and it is the one responsible for sending the signal to stop eating when you are full. When your hypothalamus is less sensitive to this hormone, it isn’t able to receive the signal that leptin is sending, which makes it much more likely that you will continue to eat past the point of fullness.
Leptin isn’t the only hormone that cortisol can interfere with. In fact, the other hunger hormone, ghrelin, has been found to be impacted by the presence of cortisol in your system. Ghrelin is often called the “hunger hormone” because its job is to tell your brain when it’s time to eat. In other words, it is responsible for initiating feelings of hunger. Researchers have found that ghrelin production tends to increase within your body as cortisol levels rise. This suggests that being under long-term stress can cause your body to produce more of this hunger hormone than it normally would, which then leads to overeating.
On top of all of that, studies have shown that we are more likely to reach for foods that are high in calories, sugars, and fats when we are feeling stressed. This likely has to do with the way that cortisol influences the production of feel-good hormones like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which reward our brains for eating these comfort foods. Additionally, the cravings we experience for these foods could also be a result of the way stress impacts the gut microbiome, as we know that the bacteria that reside there also have the power to influence our food cravings.
As if all of that isn’t enough, chronic stress is also known to impact things like sleep and exercise habits, which can also influence our eating habits since they play a role in regulating our hunger hormones.
Do Eating Habits Impact Stress?
Alright, so now you understand how stress can impact your eating habits, but you may be wondering: can our eating habits influence our stress levels?
Interestingly, there is some research that shows that there are some food items that can impact your stress levels. This means that what you eat can cause you to be stressed, anxious, or moody. Some of the common items that can do this to you include caffeine which is capable of disrupting your sleep cycle as well as overstimulating your nervous system, which can impact how your body responds to stress. Other examples include foods that are high in sugar or refined carbohydrates. These foods can cause dramatic changes in your blood sugar levels, which can initiate the release of cortisol. Fried foods can also cause your body to work overtime to try and break down the fats, which can result in stress pressure on your body in the long run.
Tips to Manage Stress-Related Eating Habits
Knowledge may be power, but true change comes from our actions, which is why it’s so important for us to learn how to manage our stress-related eating habits if we want to lead a healthy, happy life. If you’re looking for some tips to help with this, try one of these.
1) Start a Clean Eating Routine
This is where meal planning and prepping comes in handy. You should think about planning your meals in such a way that will help reduce your temptations to eat unhealthy food items or at least make it harder to follow through on those temptations. Try getting rid of the overprocessed foods that are in your pantry, plan to fix healthy meals throughout the week, and stock your kitchen with fruits, veggies, and other whole foods that will serve as a healthy, nourishing snack when you need it.
2) Recognize Your Stress Eating Triggers
When are you most likely to turn to stress eating? What makes you turn to stress eating? Is it family issues? Is it a relationship challenge? A traumatic experience? Are you overworked? Whatever the case may be, you should identify the triggers that normally make you more likely to snack throughout the day, eat more than usual, or crave unhealthy foods you usually avoid. Once you identify your triggers, you can focus on other ways to handle those situations like meditation, journaling, nature therapy, or talking to a friend, family member, or professional.
3) Practice Mindfulness
Being mindful and tuning into your body when you feel hungry is a great way to overcome your stress eating habits. Before you resort to reaching out for that bag of chips or fried chicken, ask yourself if you are really hungry. Wait for a few minutes to determine if your body truly needs food or if this is a stress response. If you think it’s the latter, you can try doing your favorite stress-relieving activity first and then checking back in with your body to see how it is feeling. Additionally, practicing mindful eating can help you notice when you’re feeling full so you stop eating at the right time.
4) Find Healthier Food Alternatives
If you find yourself searching the pantry for something to eat when you feel stressed, you can be intentional about your food choices and reach for healthier, whole-food items instead of processed ones. For example, grab some fruit if you want something sweet or a few carrot sticks if you’re craving something crunchy. To beat a salt craving, try a hard-boiled egg or a handful of mixed nuts (preferably unsalted, of course).
5) Find Something Else To Do
When you know that you tend to fall into a habit of stress eating, you can help yourself avoid it by giving your mind and body something else to do. For example, turn on some music and spend some time cleaning or organizing a small space in your house. You can also call a friend and meet up for a fun outdoor activity if the weather is permitting. Just try and find something to occupy your time and mind and chances are that cravings or urge to eat will start to go away.
Live the #NewEarthLife
Take control of your life today by beating stress-related eating habits. There are so many reasons behind the cravings you have, but there are equally as many tips you can try to avoid stress eating. Join the #NewEarthLife today and start taking small steps to help you manage your health by taking control of your stress and diet.
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