Do you turn to food for comfort even when you’re not really hungry? Chances are, you might be stress eating.
So what is stress eating?
Many people develop a pattern of eating that is less about eating for health and more about coping with emotions. Stress eating, also called emotional eating, happens when a person depends on food for comfort, happiness, and diversion from feelings of anger, grief, or stress. When this method becomes the primary way of dealing with stressful situations, your emotion decides how much you eat and not your body. This results in overeating which can impact your health and wellness negatively.
Why does junk or unhealthy food provide comfort in stress?
When your body is stressed, it produces more cortisol or ‘hunger hormone,’ making you feel more hungry than usual. Stress can also reduce the level of serotonin and dopamine, the hormones responsible for emotional wellbeing. This leads to increased cravings for foods high in sugar and fat since the brain releases more serotonin and dopamine when consuming high sugar and fat foods, alleviating your mood.
However, the effect is usually momentary since the root cause of your stress is not addressed. Emotions such as stress are not the only triggers for stress eating or emotional eating. Factors such as boredom, fatigue, and social influences can also cause you to overeat.
How to know if you’re stress eating?
- If you are stress eating, you’ll probably see these signs:
- Eating constantly throughout the day, even after feeling full.
- Mindless eating or not paying attention to or enjoying what you’re eating.
- Eating till you’re stuffed and still not satisfied.
- Experiencing extreme levels of energy-both high and low throughout the day.
- Feeling guilty or sluggish after eating.
- Want for specific foods.
- A general increase in weight.
If you notice any of these symptoms, get them checked out by a health professional so that you receive appropriate treatment, whether that includes joining a weight management program, using medication or therapies, or making lifestyle changes to restore your good health.
The consequences of overeating
Overeating negatively impacts your health and can increase your risk of developing certain diseases such as:
How to manage stress eating
If you think you might be overeating due to stress, consult a doctor. With an overall check-up, they will be able to tell the link to your eating habits. They may also refer you to other health experts, such as a nutritionist to work on a plan to manage your eating habits or a psychologist to assess your mental health and stress concerns.
Here is a list of things you can try to help yourself deal with your emotional eating.
- Write a mood and food diary to help you differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Make a record of emotions (anxious, sad, stressed..) that trigger a shift in your eating habits. This will motivate you to improve by confronting your food intake each time you note it down.
- Create a shopping list in advance to have a range of healthy meals and snacks at home and less of the junk you usually crave.
- Find healthy alternatives for your favorite foods. If you reach for chocolate and sweets when you are stressed, try to find low-sugar options. If you crave fried foods, find healthy recipes for those cheat foods to avoid denying yourself altogether.
- Increase your water intake. Most hunger pangs you endure are usually due to thirst. Keeping yourself hydrated can make you feel less inclined to overeat.
- Address the root cause of your stress, such as stress at work. Try talking to your boss or HR department about ways to minimize pressure at work.
- Spend some time every day meditating.
- Start exercising regularly to increase serotonin naturally.
- Take some time out to indulge in activities you enjoy.
- Get sufficient sleep.
- Cut back on alcohol, cigarette smoking, and drugs.
There may be several factors that contribute to your overeating and stress problems. But it doesn’t have to get the best of you. If you find yourself struggling with your eating habits, get professional help from DrNewMed’s network of primary care doctors & nutritionists.