Stress Eating: What it is & How to Avoid it

When you are stressed or overwhelmed, are you drawn to foods that are high in salt, sugar and/or fat?
Do you feel like you have to skip breakfast or other meals because you don’t have time to eat?
Do you depend on caffeine to keep you awake in the morning or at other times of the day when you are feeling low in energy?
Are you starving when you finish a busy day because you have skipped meals, and find yourself eating to a point of being overly full on whatever you have around?
Have you lost or gained weight recently due to a change in appetite or stress eating?

​You’re not alone! With the shift in our routine and workplace & the added stress of the current situation, stress eating is common. But, stress eating has no place in our homes – we’re on a mission to stay fit and healthy, right!? 

When we encounter something stressful, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to help us think more clearly and be ready for a physical response – should it be required. This is a basic instinct that we have evolved to help us cope with potentially dangerous situations and is known as the “fight or flight” response.

However, in modern life we can become stressed for many reasons other than impending danger with our bodies’ reaction staying the same. With their pre-determined instincts, our bodies’ still prepare our minds in this instinctive way and give less priority to other, less urgent, functions. Digestion is one such function that is given a lower priority during stressful situations. This is not good as poor digestion can make us feel unwell and in turn can be a source of stress.

Chronic (long term) stress has been linked to the tendency of the body to store fat around the middle (stomach). Poor stress-management, for some people, is perhaps the most significant barrier to weight loss.
While stress often erodes healthy eating patterns, our need for certain nutrients actually increases during periods of stress. Research shows that when high demands are placed on the body, with a more rapid turnover of protein, vitamin C and many B vitamins that are used to produce energy.  So when meals are skipped or a balanced diet is not maintained, nutrient needs are often not met and health may become compromised.

Being aware of how your body works and deals with stress can help you to manage stress and stressful situations. After a stressful period the human body can go into a ‘recovery mode’ where increased appetite and food cravings become more prevalent. At the same time, metabolic rates drop to conserve energy. Being aware of these patterns can help you manage your stress levels and through nutrition and diet you can help your body recover from stressful periods more rapidly and minimize negative effects such as weight gain.

Managing our Eating While Under Stress

  • On stressful days, eat small frequent meals 

    • This will keep your metabolism ticking over all day and you will minimize peaks and troughs in energy levels. 
    • Eat breakfast, even though you may not feel hungry or believe you do not have enough time. Eating breakfast helps to kick start your metabolism for the day and also helps to stabilize your blood sugar level which will in turn reduce stress.
    • Try setting alarms on your phone to go off every few hours to remind yourself to have something to eat, even if it is a small snack like a protein shake or yogurt. 
  • Make sure you eat vegetables each day and focus on foods containing Vitamins B and C, and Magnesium

    • B Vitamins – Helps you feel more energetic after a stressful episode. Bananas, leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts, seeds and also meat, fish and dairy products all contain essential B vitamins.
    • Vitamin C – The adrenal glands contain the largest store of vitamin C in the body and are important in the production of stress hormones. Eat citrus fruit such as oranges, tomatoes, peppers, kiwi fruit, leafy green vegetables, broccoli and other foods rich in Vitamin C.
    • Magnesium – Can help to relax muscles and reduce anxiety. Increase your magnesium intake by eating nuts, especially Brazil nuts, but also hazelnuts and peanuts. Leafy green vegetables, whole grains, especially oats, brown rice and beans are also good sources of magnesium. You can also take a relaxing bath with a good handful of Epsom salts (available at your pharmacist) as these contain magnesium that can be absorbed through your skin.
  • Do not confuse hunger or the urge to eat with thirst or cravings

    • If you feel hungry, first have some water or try flavoured water/sparkling water, then reassess if it is actual hunger. 
    • Ask yourself: “Am I hungry or am I craving this food because I am stressed, bored, upset etc.?” If you are hungry, have a bit of protein & vegetables as your body may be telling you it needs a bit of extra nutrition.
    • If experiencing cravings, try performing another activity to calm the craving like talking to a friend or removing yourself from the situation. 

Remember that you are in control of what goes into your body! Try to take time to assess how you are feeling, and if it really is time to eat, slow down when eating your food & enjoy the experience. 

To avoid stress-eating, keep yourself busy! Instead of gravitating into the kitchen when you need a break from your screen, go outside on your balcony, read a few pages in your book, walk around your condo, play with your pet etc. Find something to occupy your mind, fill your cup with water, take 10 mins to yourself & then get back to work until it is actually meal time!

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