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- Eric First, M.D., FAIS and Matthew Roberts, PhD.
Events that can often cause heightened stress, such as the recent Covid-19 Pandemic, Holiday’s, Job or School related deadlines and Politics, can make it challenging to maintain a healthy diet, even among those who are uber healthy.
This heightened stress can often lead the best of us to reach for the refrigerator or cupboard for snacks that may be anything but good for us!
During the lockdown of 2020 and with more people working from home and children trying to learn remotely, access to unhealthy snacks became easily accessible; the kitchen…oh so close.
Even before the pandemic, as far back as 2010, the American Psychology Association (APA), reported that the US population appears to be caught in a vicious cycle where they don’t think they have the time or willpower to make the lifestyle or behavior changes necessary to manage their stress in healthier productive ways. Coping with this stress can be in the form or “stress-eating”, which is one reaction to stress that can affect both parents and children. According to the survey, 27 percent of overweight children reported eating to make themselves feel better when they are stressed2.
The 2021 and 2022 Annual Stress in America Survey titled, A year ago, Stress in America™ One Year Later, A New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns, found COVID-19-related stress was associated with unhealthy weight gains and increased drinking. These unhealthy behaviors have persisted through the second year of the pandemic, suggesting that coping mechanisms have become entrenched—and mental and physical health is on a continuing decline for many as a result.
So…What is Stress-eating?
Chronic stress is associated with tasty (think high sugar and/or fat) food intake and thus, the potential development of obesity. This can lead to a stress-eating viscous cycle relationship which is mediated by the release of cortisol and other hormones that increase your stress as well as your appetite. The cycle perpetuates itself and requires a conscious intervention to break free of it.
Also known as emotional eating, stress-eating involves using food as a coping mechanism to help you feel better. Typically, it has nothing to do with physical hunger and everything to do with soothing or suppressing uncomfortable feelings and situations2. Turning to a favorite snack or meal to fill emotional needs, reduce anxiety, and banish stress is a common practice. You are not alone.
You may be asking yourself, why do I tend to eat when stressed?
From a biological standpoint, stress causes your adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. When this happens and is sustained over time, you may notice an increase in appetite and a desire to eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods. High sugar content foods, as well as high fat, salty snacks are common “go-to” foods to calm your stress. However, this urge to eat isn’t the result of an empty stomach. Instead, it’s your brain “telling you” to eat so you can prepare for a potentially harmful situation. Under periods of chronic stress, or perceived threat, the brain burns more fuel with the most common type of fuel - sugar. This is a result of excess cortisol release, which leads to higher blood sugar levels and increased insulin release, depleting fast energy sources like sugar. Typically, when the stress subsides cortisol and blood sugar levels return to normal.
However, coming out of a major Pandemic and other stressful current events, on top of being bombarded with daily stressors and not finding ways to manage them, can lead to high cortisol levels which can lead to food cravings and subsequently, overeating; a vicious cycle ensues, which can be hard to break.
So what are the most common food types people reach for when stressed?
A recent study by Oliver and colleagues7 investigated this very question. They studied whether acute stress alters food choice during a meal. The study was designed to test claims of selective effects of stress on appetite for specific sensory and nutritional categories of food and interactions with eating attitudes. Sixty-eight healthy men and women were evaluated for "the effects of hunger on physiology, performance, and mood." Eating attitudes and food preferences were measured on entry to the study. The stressed group prepared a 4-minute speech, expecting it to be filmed and assessed after a midday meal, although in fact speeches were not performed. The “all you can eat” meal (eat as much and as often as desired) included sweet, salty, or bland high- and low-fat foods. The control group listened to a passage of neutral text before eating the meal. What they found was that there were increases in blood pressure and changes in mood that confirmed the effectiveness of the stressor. Stress did not alter overall intake, nor intake of, or appetite for the six food categories. However, stressed emotional eaters ate sweeter high-fat foods and a more energy-dense meal than unstressed and non-emotional eaters. Dietary restraint did not significantly affect appetitive responses to stress. The authors concluded-that increased eating of sweet fatty foods by emotional eaters during stress, and may compromise the health of susceptible individuals through deleterious stress-related changes in food choice7.
So what can you do to address my stress eating?
Consider the time of day/night when you find yourself reaching for those mouth-watering, dripping w/ sugar, desserts.
Based on a recent study conducted at to a study by Carnell and colleagues8 from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, timing may play a role in appetite and gut hormone responses to meal and stress challenges.
They showed that the “afternoon/evening may be a high-risk period for overeating, particularly when paired with stress exposure, and for those with binge eating.” This means that your commute home or evening meal (and those after dinner dessert(s)…., may be a time period when you have a greater likelihood to eat more than you should.
To help curb this increased chance, pay attention to snacking habits after a long day of work to help maintain a better nutritional diet. A food journal is a great way to track your eating.
Along with the Journal, try R3SET’s new Stress Eating Botanical Supplement, from the Stress Experts. Reaching for the R3SET stress eating supplement is a conscious choice that helps break the stress-easting vicious cycle mentioned above. Formulated to address the root cause of stress-eating or “Junk-Snacking” – Stress, which leads to Cravings and ultimately to junk snacking. Suggested time should be no surprise, given the scientific studies cited above and numerous others, late afternoon/evening are those times when we find ourselves reaching for something we probably shouldn’t... Additional everyday simple things you can do; Try preparing snacks in advance to control portion size or even using a food journal to track what you eat, how much of it and when.
In addition, we recommend that you pick up a copy of the newly published book by Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian, and CEO of The New York Nutrition Group, and a Scientific Advisor for R3SET. Her new book is backed by science, The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan; a comprehensive approach that helps you achieve sustainable results without constantly feeling deprived or eliminating foods your body actually needs.
Practice mindful eating using the R3 method developed by R3SET
Take these 3 simple steps towards healthier choices when you’re stressed. Learn more about the easy to use R3 method here:
Healthy Snacks to curb the crave: There are a myriad of healthy snacking options. Stick to whole foods such as nuts, seeds, spreads. If craving sweet, a great alternative that is low on the glycemic scale are dates, in particular Medajool dates a variety of dates enjoyed for their natural sweetness. They’re larger, darker, and more caramel-like in taste than other common types like Deglet Noor. Medjool dates are a concentrated source of healthy nutrients. Dates are dense and packed with fiber, key vitamins and minerals.
Immerse in the experience: Enjoy them, slowly, take your time, smell it, when biting into it, think about how it feels in your mouth, the taste and aroma, the mild sweetness. The more can slow down eating, and become more present with what you are eating, the more satisfying and enjoyable it is, and soon you find you want to preserve those experiences and find no need to mindlessly eat the whole bag. Whenever possible, buy fresh dates. If you only have the option of dried, then do be mindful that dried dates, become more concentrated and thus more sugar then what you need.
Still looking for something satisfying and a bit sweet?
Try organic apples, sliced with nut and/or seed butter. Types like - almond, sunflower, mixed seed and nut butters. Look at the label to ensure that it doesn’t contain additional ingredients, only the nut and/or seeds.
Now is it something savory you crave?
Consider non-dairy spreads; hummus (chick pea) minimally processed, with crackers made from whole seeds, can be satisfying, while still delivering loads of nutrition. Again, slow the pace, really experience how it looks, feels, tastes, crunches, melts in your mouth, and the aroma.
Finally, Watch portion sizes. Always portion out snacks or whole fruits/vegetables. Get used to seeing how much is there and time your intake in between bites, to be longer over time, slowing down and experiencing it….before you know it, the desire to consume the whole bag melts away, the craving disappears, your stress levels go down..
If you are questioning whether you may have an eating disorder such as binge eating, bulima, or anorexia nervosa, always consult your doctor. There is no supplement out there, including R3SET Stress-eating, that can give you the proper support you may need.