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Stress is something that every person deals with. In fact, stress is actually a good thing and something that we can thank our very survival as a species for. However, stress can quickly bleed into areas it doesn’t belong to and cause problems, such as changes in mood, emotional eating, unhealthy cravings, poor eating habits, and binge eating.
One of those problems is overeating. As a result, this can lead to high cortisol levels. If you have ever found yourself frustrated with the fact that you ate intentionally due to stress, you are not alone.
In fact, according to a study cited by the American Psychological Association, 39 percent of the current population of adults confess to regularly eating junk food and other “unhealthy” foods, and half of those people relate it to a stress-induced decision based on negative emotions.
This is substantial, meaning that millions of people in America struggle with the problem of eating comfort foods high in fats, sugars, and unhealthy cholesterols when stressed.
But why does this happen to people and how can we find ways to stop stress eating?
The first step towards finding out how to stop stress eating is to educate yourself on why stress might cause you to eat in the first place. Our body’s autonomic nervous system is divided into two segments -- the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
These two systems are responsible for two primary states of being that we constantly find ourselves in: “fight or flight” and “rest and digest.”
The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with all of our rest and digest pathways. This system helps the body know when to eat, lay down, rest, recoup, and process. The sympathetic nervous system does the exact opposite.
The sympathetic nervous system helps the body understand when it needs to “fight or flight.” It instructs the body during times of testing or challenge.
This part of our physiology is crucial for our survival. Your sympathetic nervous system is engaged when running from danger or doing normal activities like driving through rush hour traffic.
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to be a healthy model of dealing with life’s stress and responding adequately. It even initially decreases a person’s appetite to more thoroughly deal with the present challenge or potential danger that triggers poor eating behavior.
So how does stress cause someone to start eating then?
Whether it's due to sadness, loneliness, or boredom, understanding the mechanisms behind why you feel the sudden hunger hormones can make all the difference. Rather than experience the feelings of guilt and shame when eating a bag of chips, opt for a healthy snack like dark chocolate or fruits high in fiber. You can also discuss your diet routine with a registered dietitian who will guide you in the best options for protein, veggies, and physical activity to add to your daily routine.
When stress is activated for longer periods of time, which is often the case with people who “feel stressed,” the stress hormone cortisol which is initially released is sustained, leading to more chronic stress state
One of the key things that cortisol does is it increases the body’s natural ability to intake energy. This means that it promotes glucose transport and actually increases a person’s appetite as stores of glucose are used for energy. The logic behind a hormone, like cortisol, makes sense.
Initially, stress will cause your appetite pathways to shut down to focus on a certain threat. However, if this threat cannot be dealt with quickly -- then your body will continue to be in high gear using a maximum amount of energy.
So releasing a hormone like cortisol helps keep your body fueled if the stress continues to last. When a person is feeling chronic stress, glucose is depleted and their sense of hunger may be due to excess amounts of cortisol increasing their appetite, signaling for more and more glucose (aka sweets and carbohydrates).
The problem with this is that most people are not in a proper emergency environment where their food will be transposed to energy. Instead, this stress may lead to overeating which could cause unnecessary and unwanted weight gain.
Instead, opt for stress management hobbies like yoga and meditation, foods with fewer calories, and understand the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
Now that you are aware of why you may be more prone to overeating during times of stress, let’s look at how we can prevent this from happening.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is an essential part of controlling your problems with stress eating. For many Americans, it comes as no surprise that we are stressed over things that we feel we cannot control or handle. In fact, if we could -- we would have loved to have put a stop to those stressors before they become a problem.
However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can’t do. We suggest getting a journal and writing out a concise list of things that stress you. Once you have that list, try and segregate it into three columns.
One column will represent stressors that you have no control over at all. Another will represent columns that you have partial control over, like work or shared living environments. The last column will consist of active stress in your life that you can control.
If you have been stress eating, move that into this last column because you have the total ability to control that action.
Cortisol’s job is to fuel your body while you are actively working through stressful symptoms. For those of us who experience chronic stress, sedentary lifestyles can lead to an accumulation of cortisol. This is not good.
Putting your body through controlled stress, like working out at the gym, going for a jog, or even taking regular walks, allows your body to use up that stored cortisol. This not only helps your body deal with stress hormones, but it actively burns calories and can help build a healthy appetite as well.
When we are stressed, we specifically want to eat foods high in sugars, fats, and carbs. This means that we can be strategic about what kinds of food we always have on hand.
While the easiest step might be ordering take-out or getting a pizza delivered, these decisions will not help or enforce your journey to stop stress eating. Instead, focus on putting healthy alternatives on your shopping list and limiting the number of unhealthy food options you have access to.
Nuts and berries provide wonderful sources of sugars and healthy fats -- helping you feel full! Learning how to prepare satisfying, healthy complex carbs like baked sweet potatoes or rice can be great for late-night munchies.
They’re healthy, fill you up, and give you good sugars and starches your body can easily use!
Being dehydrated can make a severe impact on your food decisions. Making sure to always keep water and electrolyte-rich drinking options close by can help you handle hunger. Not only that, but hydration doesn't just happen in pure liquid form.
For instance, watermelon and oranges are wonderful sources of water. Not to mention, rich in electrolytes and sugars that can help you stay healthy and well-nourished!
Life is for the living! Always remember this. If you are making a decision to stop stress eating, then write down why that decision matters to you and constantly come back to that.
We cannot expect to learn something new without failure, but it’s too easy to be hard on ourselves when we fail. Rather than becoming discouraged, simply keep your ‘why’ close by and constantly remind yourself of it.
If, for some reason, you totally blow it -- learn how to accept this and see it as a learning curve, not a sign that you are doomed to fail.
Healthy stress supplements made from organic, natural ingredients can help to alleviate tension and support stress pathways. This can help to greatly increase your ability to feel calm and rested, which could lead to having the upper hand against stress eating.
Daily supplements represent a time-tested, safe and healthy option for helping boost your vitamins for stress support systems.
Getting enough sleep is paramount to your success against stress eating. The rest and rejuvenation that a full night of sleep can give you are very important when fighting stress-related symptoms and conditions.
In addition, sleep has been tied to multiple health benefits, including digestion and appetite. A lack of sleep is known to promote feelings of tiredness and being unwell and can motivate overeating.
In conclusion, one of the most important things you can do is constantly remind yourself that you can overcome stress with mindful eating.
Encouragement and motivation are the two most important aspects of this journey, and you will have a high reward if you find ways of cultivating these things.
The journey to stop stress eating is unique and different for every person. So don’t be afraid of trying out things that may not work as you find out what uniquely works for you.
If you have any medical concerns concerning stress eating, consult your doctor for next steps.