What is stress eating?
Food is a central aspect of human life and is necessary for survival. However, many people develop a relationship with food that is less about eating for health and wellness, and more about coping with emotions. Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is a reliance on food to bring comfort, happiness and distraction from feelings of anger, sadness, or stress. It typically results in overeating because it is the emotion that dictates how much you eat, not your body.
Why does junk food provide comfort?
It is normal to feel hungry when you’re stressed, because your body produces more cortisol which is also known as the ‘hunger hormone’. Stress may also reduce the level of ‘happiness hormones’, serotonin and dopamine, which could elicit cravings for foods high in sugar or fat. When consuming foods high in sugar or fat, your brain releases more serotonin and dopamine, which improve your mood and alleviate anxiety. However, the effect is usually short-lived because the root cause of your stress triggers is not properly addressed. Feelings of stress would usually return, and you will find yourself caught in the cycle of stress eating all over again.
The difference between stress eating and physical hunger
If you are stress eating, you’ll probably notice the following warning signs:
- Eating constantly throughout the day, even just after consuming a large meal or when you are full
- Eating mindlessly without really paying attention to what you eat or fully enjoying what you eat
- Eating until you are uncomfortably stuffed, yet still not feeling satisfied
- Experiencing extreme highs and lows of energy throughout the day
- Feeling generally sluggish
- Feeling guilty after eating
- Specific cravings that cannot be satisfied by other foods
- Weight gain
The consequences of overeating
Overeating has many consequences for your health, including an increased risk of developing certain diseases. Overeating can lead to:
When stress eating becomes a recurring issue – you might want to rule out binge eating disorder, which is a subclass of eating disorders. While stress-induced overeating occurs periodically, binge eating occurs at least once a week for 3 consecutive months. Besides overeating, individuals who binge eat typically suffer from lack of self-control, disgust, guilt, or embarrassment, and they usually binge eat in isolation in order to conceal the behaviour from others. They may also harbour compensatory behaviours, such as compulsive exercise, laxative abuse, self-induced vomiting, and extreme fasting. Seeking professional help is necessary in order to manage this condition.
How to deal with stress eating
If you think you might be overeating due to stress, you should see your doctor. They will offer you an overall check-up, to make sure you aren’t suffering from any illnesses linked to your eating habits. They may also:
- refer you to a dietitian to work on a plan to manage your eating habits
- refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist to assess your mental health and stress concerns
- recommend appropriate exercise programmes
- give you tips for stress relief
There are also some things that you can do to help yourself get back in control of your eating. Try:
- Writing a mood and food diary. Keep a record of emotions (e.g. sad, anxious or stressed) that trigger a change in your eating habit, and also everything that you eat. This can help you better differentiate physical hunger and emotion hunger. It also gives you motivation to improve by confronting your diet each time you write it down.
- Exploring why you’re eating, thus find a replacement activity.
- Making a shopping list before you go shopping and stick to it so that you have a range of healthy meals and snacks at home, and less of the junk that you usually crave.
- Getting your whole family involved. Poor diet often spans across an entire household. Enlisting the help of your partner and children can help you to stay on track. You can also improve your overall health by going out for walks, playing active games, and planning meals together.
- Finding healthy options for your favourite foods. If you reach for chocolate and sweets when you are stressed, try to find a low sugar alternative. If you crave fried foods and burgers, find healthy recipes for those cheat foods so that you aren’t denying yourself completely.
- Increasing your water intake. Many of the hunger pangs you experience are actually due to thirst. If you increase the amount of water you drink, you will feel less inclined to eat as often through the day.
Take steps to minimise stress and to manage your eating habits. Start by:
- Talking to your boss or HR department about ways to minimise pressure at work if your job is stressing you
- Spending some time each day meditating or focusing on your breathing
- Start exercising regularly – it is an effective way to increase serotonin release without the use of drugs
- Taking time out to do things you enjoy, like reading a book or relaxing in a bubble bath
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Cutting out alcohol, cigarette smoking and drugs
If you are struggling
It is always best to see your doctor if you are struggle with your eating habits. There may be a number of factors that contribute to your overeating and stress problems. Getting help and advice for dealing with those factors will give you the best chance for overall health and happiness.
Article reviewed by Daphne Loh, senior dietitian at Gleneagles Hospital
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