The strongest food cravings seem to hit when you are at your weakest point. I’m sure we can all think about a time when the stress of life was piling up, and in turn we coped by eating a pile of cookies. Many people experience stress eating, but making a habit of it can be detrimental to our weight loss goals.

There is much power behind the term “stress eating”. Stress, the hormones it releases, and coping strategies involving comfort foods, all can factor into overeating. Research has shown that both stress and weight gain go hand in hand, which is alarming when nearly a fourth of Americans rate their stress as an 8 out of a 10-point scale. So, why do we turn to food in times of stress?

Stress Eating, Hunger, and Hormones

Appetite can react to stress in two totally different ways. Some people get stressed and do not feel any hunger, while others may have unstoppable cravings. Short term stress can shut down appetite by releasing too much of a hormone called epinephrine from the adrenal glands. This hormone triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which makes eating seem unappealing.

But if stress continues to occur, the adrenal glands will release another hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for revving up our motivation, including our motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should drop, however, sometimes a person’s stress response can get stuck, leaving cortisol levels elevated.

Stress has also been shown to affect food preferences. Studies have shown that physical and emotional distress increases intake of foods high in fat and sugar. Once consumed, these foods seem to dampen the effects of stress overall, showing that “comfort foods” may counteract stress. This cycle of stress eating comfort foods may be responsible for unwanted weight gain.

Coping with stressful situations by eating is not the only behavior that can add pounds. People who are frequently stressed tend to lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol. All of which can contribute to excess weight gain.

How to Relieve Stress Without eating

Although stress eating can seem inevitable, there are steps that can be taken to avoid losing control of your health goals. Prevent raiding your kitchen of high-fat and sugary foods by keeping those “comfort foods” out of the house. Keeping these handy is asking for trouble.

Some other suggestions for dealing with stress include:

  • Meditation – Countless studies have been done to show how meditation can help people to become more mindful. With consistent practice, meditation may help us to pay better attention to the impulse of comfort eating and in turn inhibit it.
  • Exercise – Exercise can help stop some of the negative effects of stress. Daily movement has been shown to manage acceptable cortisol levels that relate to our motivation to eat. Some activities like yoga and tai chi also have elements of both exercise and meditation.
  • Social Support – Leaning on social support, like family and friends, during stressful times is essential for mental health. From time to time, we all need somebody we can open up to and use as a resource that can help to manage overall stress.

Written by BWS Dietitian Abbey Granger, MS, RDN, LD

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