Stress can affect people in different ways, especially when it comes to diet. Some people find their appetite reduces when they’re feeling under strain, where others reach for comfort food and find themselves overeating. If you’re the latter and you’re struggling to meet your weight loss goals this year, stress eating could be one of the reasons – especially given that 2020 has been so much more stressful than usual.
So, how do you stop stress eating? Read our tips below to find out.
What is stress eating?
Sometimes known as ‘emotional eating’, stress eating is when food becomes a response to how you’re feeling rather than a way of fuelling the body. When stressed, the human body automatically increases the amount of cortisol it produces. Cortisol is the hormone that regulates appetite, metabolism and blood sugar levels, so this can lead to you feeling more tired and hungry. If you find you’re craving starchy or sugary foods even after you’ve eaten a meal, then it might be worth looking at how your stress levels are affecting your food choices.
Sometimes people look to food as a distraction from how they’re feeling too, with some experts believing that bingeing on sugar can have the same effect on the brain as drugs or alcohol.
Why stress eating is bad?
Just like any form of overeating, stress eating can lead to weight gain, fatigue, high blood pressure and other preventable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. It can also become a vicious circle as you may be teaching your body to crave sugary foods at certain times of the day, reinforcing unhealthy eating habits.
How to stop stress eating
Identifying and dealing with the root cause is the best way to get your emotional eating in check but in the short term there are some things you can do.
A good place to start is awareness and beginning to differentiate between physical and emotional hunger. Physical hunger is usually accompanied by physical sensations such as a rumbling tummy, low energy, headaches and stomach pains. If you don’t recognise any of these signs, then you’re probably emotionally hungry and you need to look to something else other than food.
Building healthier habits can also help you work out whether you’re hungry because there’s a physical need or it’s a reaction to how you’re feeling. Eat three balanced meals a day and avoid skipping meals as this may cause you to overeat later in the day.
Keeping a food diary can also help to identify any triggers that have you reaching for unhealthy snacks. If a certain situation has you craving sweets, biscuits, crisps or alcohol then that’s a sign that something needs to change.
Is stress eating a disorder?
More often than not, stress eating is manageable using some of the tips outlined above. As well as looking at ways to reduce stress overall.
When people don’t learn to manage stress in healthy ways, stress eating can become a problem. In some cases, the link between emotions and food can turn into something more serious. When a person is compelled to fill an emotional void with regular binge eating – consuming large portions of food all at once until they feel uncomfortably full, and then often feeling upset or guilty. There is more on the topic and how to find help here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/binge-eating/