Stress and eating go hand in hand. When you're stressed out, the last thing you want to do is eat healthily. You might feel like your only solace comes from a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips. But why does stress have this effect on you?

First, let's look at emotional and mental stress. You've probably heard of comfort food and how it soothes your mind and makes you feel better.

But what is it about certain foods that make you feel this way? When we're stressed, we might turn to junk food because we've heard that it might help us relax.

Why, exactly?

First of all, there's a chemical response from your body to certain foods. You might be familiar with the term ' Cortisol.' Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because it's produced when you're feeling any type of anxiety or fear.

But Cortisol isn't the only hormone our body produces when we're stressed; there's also serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. When these chemicals are released in your brain, it affects how you feel (i.e., calms you down or makes you feel happy) and what types of food you want to eat.


What does this mean for you?

You can either produce serotonin and oxytocin by eating protein-rich foods, such as turkey or eggs. Or you can try to increase your serotonin levels through exercise, which will produce endorphins in the brain.


What about insulin?

Your body also secretes a lot of insulin when you're stressed out and feeling anxious. People on the verge of binge eating might notice that they crave sugary foods because their body is producing too much insulin. This is also why you might feel hungry only a few hours after your last meal.

This article will explore how stress affects your eating habits and what you can do to avoid the downward spiral into binge eating.


Why do people overeat when they are stressed?

You might be surprised to know that one of the body's natural responses to stress is an increased appetite. It's normal to go into survival mode when you're under severe physical or mental distress, including eating more food than usual.

The problem with this mechanism is that most people never return to their resting metabolism rates after experiencing a period of stress or anxiety. This means that after a long time, you might start to gain weight.

In addition, when your body enters survival mode, it stops burning fat and starts storing it because in the wild, when food was scarce, it would have been beneficial for humans to store as much fat as possible to survive.

This tells us that when stress causes you to eat more food than usual, your body is wired up to store the excess as fat cells.


Types of overeating:

There are different types of overeating, and most people engage in at least one of these behaviours when under stress. Stress can be a direct cause of

1. Binge Eating:

This is when you eat large quantities of food in a short period of time. Stress makes it harder to control your cravings and can cause an overindulgence that leads to weight gain, digestive issues like acid reflux and other health consequences.


2. Emotional Eating:

This is when you eat your feelings. When you're stressed out, angry, or sad, it can be easy to resort to food as a coping mechanism.

This type of overeating is triggered by emotions rather than hunger and doesn't allow you to enjoy your food because you're so focused on other feelings.


3. Compulsive eating:

This is when you're stressed during an activity, like studying for finals and reach for food instead of a drink or cup of coffee.

Some students may resort to eating in the middle of the night because they are still stressing about homework or tests even though they've already worked hard on it. Or, even worse, they might continue to turn to food after the stress-inducing activity is over.


What causes this behaviour?

Stress can be a direct cause of overeating because it activates your fight or flight response system in the limbic region of your brain, which makes you crave sugars and starches.

Stress gets your cortisol levels high which is a major factor in weight gain. In turn, your happy chemicals like serotonin plummet, and you might be tempted to eat more sugar and carbs to bring them up again because of the temporary happiness they bring.


How can this behaviour be treated?

If you find yourself eating unreasonably under stress, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you're really hungry. Figure out what emotions are causing the stress and try to deal with them in a productive way instead of eating ice cream straight from the container while watching Netflix.

And remember that there's unlikely any treatment for this type of overeating that doesn't include changing your overall lifestyle, including learning how to manage stress better.


What are common physical symptoms of stress?

Common physical signs of stress include tightness in your chest, increased heart rate, increased mental fatigue, and a lack of energy.

Some people might even experience shakiness in their hands or legs when they're stressed, which can lead to accidental injuries, such as dropping a dish you were trying to carry.


Stress and Overweight

People who are overweight and eat more than they need to regularly might experience stress as a trigger for binge eating even more frequently.

This is because the physical symptoms of stress can mimic those of hunger, leading you to overeat, which further adds to your weight problems.


Ways to reduce your stress levels

Here are 10 ways to reduce your stress levels, so you don't turn to food as a coping mechanism.


1. Get enough sleep.

If you're under a lot of stress, it can be hard to fall asleep at night, and you might even end up taking naps during the day out of fatigue.

When your body is running low on energy, it can't be expected to fight off hunger pangs or feel satisfied after eating smaller portions than usual.


2. Exercise regularly.

If stress has got you feeling down and out, it might be an idea to get some exercise. When you start a regular exercise routine, it's important to do so slowly and allow your body to adapt to the physical stress you're putting on it.

If you decide to adopt a new exercise program while going through a period of heightened stress levels, injury or fainting might occur due to low blood pressure, which could exacerbate your stress.


3. Eat small portions of healthy food frequently throughout the day.

Overeating food at one sitting can lead to bloating and indigestion that could amplify feelings of fatigue or anxiety during stressful periods.

Consuming frequent, smaller meals will help keep energy levels up and prevent binge eating episodes by stabilizing your blood sugar levels.


4. Stay hydrated and eat fresh, healthy food.

When you're under stress, the last thing you feel like doing is cooking or preparing meals for yourself, which can lead to overeating or making unhealthy choices when it comes to what you do eat.

The best way to avoid this is by drinking at least eight glasses of water every day and making healthy food choices while you're stressed.


5. Practice Deep Breathing

One of the first things you need to do when coping with stress is to relax your body and take deep breaths. Pilates or some other form of physical activity can also be helpful because it makes you distract yourself from whatever is causing you distress.

How about trying out meditation? It can help quiet your mind, stop negative thoughts in their tracks, and lessen any physical symptoms of stress.


6. Journal

If you struggle with binge eating, try writing down your emotions in a diary or journal before turning to food as a comfort mechanism.

It's also very important for you to keep track of what and how much food you're eating to learn more about yourself and solve your overeating problems - eventually, you should be able to expose the triggers that trigger your stress levels start eating in moderation.


More Resources

5-Day Habit Switch for Stress Relief

5 Ways You Can Prioritise Your Time To Reduce Stress

10 Ways to Stay Calm Under Pressure


7. Maintain a Healthy Diet

The next thing you should do to combat stress and prevent binge eating increases your fruit and vegetable intake.

Studies have shown that people who eat more of these foods are at a lower risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even certain types of cancer.


8. Support Groups

There are also support groups you can join to help cope with your stress. There are many forums, message boards and communities on the Internet which can provide you with people who have similar problems so that you won't feel alone in your struggle.

They can also help you cope with your stress and binge eating better by letting you know they're going through the same thing.


9. Get to know your Stress Triggers

Once you start becoming aware of why you're overeating, you'll be able to identify your stress triggers and make the necessary changes to prevent binge eating in the future.

Stress can be caused by work or school issues, relationship problems, family drama or anything else that makes you feel overwhelmed.

If you can discover the root of your stress, you'll be able to make a plan to deal with it positively so that you won't have any more episodes of turning to food for comfort.


10. Try Stress Management Techniques

Lastly, one of the most helpful stress management techniques you must learn is relaxing your body. Stress is the enemy of relaxation, which can lead to poor digestion and lack of proper blood flow throughout your body, which could cause muscle tension, headaches and sleeplessness.

Stress management techniques such as pilates, deep breathing exercises and massage therapy can help you deal with stress better so that you won't have such a bad reaction to it.

stress and eating

Final thought on stress and eating

In conclusion, stress is one of the major causes of binge eating, leading to many negative consequences like weight gain, digestive issues and even depression.

Therefore, stressed people need to find ways to cope with the stress that don't involve eating, like deep breathing, writing in a journal, eating healthy foods and exercising.

If you feel that your stress levels are getting too high, remember to try these tips first before resorting to food as a coping mechanism.


More Resources 

https://nypost.com/2017/07/27/talking-to-yourself-isnt-crazy-its-stress-relief/

https://www.usa.edu/2019/11/how-laughter-can-relieve-stress/

https://www.healthline.com/health/10-ways-to-relieve-stress#diet


About the Author Funmi

Funmi is a Certified Functional Health Coach. She is passionate about helping female entrepreneurs transform from Stress and burnout so they can begin to thrive in their body and, by extension, their businesses. 

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