Why Stress Makes You Eat

Stress is any change in your normal routine or health. Stress occurs when bad things happen, as well as happy things. Getting a raise or promotion is stress, just as getting fired from your job is stress. Speculative changes cause just as much stress as veritable changes. Pensiveness or anguish about whether you will get that new job is stress the same as being offered a new position is stress. Often people use food to comfort themselves, relieve stress and have something to do when they're bored or sad. Many people mistakenly use food to accommodate certain basic needs, such as getting rest, expressing feelings, being intellectually stimulated and receiving comfort. Food isn't going to supply any of that. While many people use food in response to emotions like anger, frustration, loneliness and sadness, stress is felt to be the main cause of emotional eating.

Imagine that it is mid-morning and you encounter unexpected stress. Your boss e-mails you about a huge accounting error you've made, or your pediatrician calls to tell you your 6-year-old's lab results are abnormal. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. During a fight-or-flight reaction, your cells demand sugar for fuel -- and quickly. Unfortunately, on this particular morning, you skipped breakfast, and supper the night before was ice cream and a diet Coke.

You have a minimal amount of circulating blood sugar available to handle your stressful event. So, your liver releases part of its stockpile of stored blood sugar. When the stressful event is over, your blood sugar is low and depleted. Low blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia, causes weakness, anxiety, nervousness, shakiness and confusion. You feel weak, tremulous and irritable. You reach for a doughnut or a candy bar because your body craves sugar.

That was not the best choice. Eating simple sugars and junk foods will indeed raise your blood sugar, but only for a short time. As soon as that ingested burst of sugar is metabolized, your circulating levels of blood sugar drops back precipitously low. And, the cycle of irritability and poor mental performance continues.

So, What can you do?

  1. Understand the Stress Response. When faced with a stressful situation, your brain signals the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, releases glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream to provide energy to the muscles. High cortisol levels result in increased appetite and fat deposits, typically in the cervical area, trunk and abdomen
  2. Learn How Stress Impacts Eating. Stress can increase your appetite and make you crave foods that contain high calories and few nutrients. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet determined why stress-eaters tend to gravitate toward certain types of food.
  3. Don't Worry, Be Happy. So, what can you do to decrease stress? Instead of seeking comfort in food, engage in a pleasurable activity that doesn't involve calories! You might get a massage, visit a friend, read a book, watch an old movie or play games with your child.
  4. Take Charge. When faced with a stressful event, ask yourself what you can change to minimize the pressure. Elect to take charge of the situation instead of being victimized by it. In the process, your body will reduce the amount of cortisol it produces, which can minimize the harmful effects of prolonged hormone release.
  5. Eat a Variety of Foods. Because stress affects blood sugar, it is important to eat healthy meals throughout the day to maintain blood sugar levels. Stress-eaters tend to reach for sugary carbohydrates, so be sure also to include the recommended amounts of protein and fat in each meal.
  6. Eat Breakfast. A well-balanced breakfast provides protein, carbohydrate and fat that helps keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the day, reducing the tendency to reach for a candy bar or soft drink.
  7. Replenish Vitamin and Mineral Stores. Stress causes the body to "burn" more vitamins and minerals, specifically vitamin B complex, magnesium and zinc; these nutrients are needed for blood sugar balance. When their levels drop, stress levels increase. Also, the adrenal glands require more vitamin C and pantothenic acid (part of the vitamin B complex) during stressful times. To offset these needs, eat fresh vegetables and fruits daily.
  8. Get Physical. Moderate exercise can help reduce the body's production of cortisol during stressful times. Numerous studies have shown that moderate physical activity helps modulate mood, reduce stress, improve self-esteem and program the brain for optimism instead of pessimism. Do aerobic and anaerobic training on a regular basis, but don't overdo it. Taking your frustration out during a vigorous workout will further increase cortisol production.
  9. Get Plenty of Rest. Sleep deprivation affects blood sugar levels, increases cortisol and reduces the production of leptin (a hormone that signals that you are full). Go to bed a little earlier each night during trying times and aim for eight hours of sleep.

How do you know if you're really hungry or if it's stress induced?

There are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Emotional hunger tends to come on suddenly, while physical hunger occurs more gradually. When you're eating for emotional reasons, you tend to crave a specific food like ice cream, candy or pizza, and only that food will meet your need. When you're actually hungry, you're more open to options. Eating for emotional reasons tends to leave us feeling guilty when eating for physical hunger does not.

Since stress is here to stay, everyone needs to develop methods for invoking the relaxation response -- the natural unwinding of the stress response. Relaxation lowers blood pressure, improves respiration, lowers pulse rates, releases muscle tension and eases emotional strains. This response is highly individualized, but there are certain approaches that seem to work, including: exercise, deep breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation and having a good network of social support.