Turning to food for comfort is common but can result in unhealthy patterns and long-term problems; here’s what you can do instead to deal with stress without always turning to food.
Why Do You Want to Eat When You’re Stressed?
Have you ever reached for a sleeve of Thin Mints to help you unwind at the end of a hard day? Or maybe soothed your hurt feelings with a bowl of especially rich ice cream? I mean, who hasn’t?
If you’ve ever turned to food when you’re feeling stress, you’re far from alone. Emotional eating, also called stress eating, relies on food as a coping mechanism and can prevent you from developing better strategies for dealing with stress and discomfort. Stress eating is often not tied to actual physical hunger and can be driven by both physiological and psychological factors. Food is a foundational part of being alive. We all have early memories of looking forward to traditional meals, or being comforted with a popsicle when we had a skinned knee. It can be hard to recognize and move beyond these patterns of associating feelings with food. Unfortunately, long-term and chronic stress can have negative consequences beyond weight gain due to stress eating. There are healthier ways to deal with stress that have nothing to do with food. If you’re wondering why you stress eat and want to know how to stop, read on to learn more about stress eating triggers and some remedies for reducing this behavior.
The Psychology of Comfort Food
What foods do you associate with your favorite holiday? What about game day traditions? Does a visit to Grandma’s house elicit memories of a favorite treat? Whether it’s corn on the cob while watching Fourth of July fireworks, snacking on hot dogs at the stadium, or Grandma’s homemade butter cookies and lemonade on the back porch, comfort foods have a strong tie to nostalgia and positive memories. Choosing these foods as adults, even in a completely different context, can bring back those happy feelings. We also find social connection and security in comfort foods. Have you ever heard the expression “food is love”? Baking and cooking together brings both comfort and shared purpose. Family recipes are handed down and offer a sense of connection and belonging.
"Taking charge in the kitchen, and even stockpiling the pantry, have helped take some of the edge off for millions of people when we’re feeling anxious and afraid — Americans’ stress levels are 70-80% higher than before the pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association."
Just think about how preparing, and eating, comfort foods has provided a sense of control during the pandemic. Did you take an online cooking class or try baking sourdough bread from your own starter? Taking charge in the kitchen, and even stockpiling the pantry, have helped take some of the edge off for millions of people when we’re feeling anxious and afraid — Americans’ stress levels are 70-80% higher than before the pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association. Stress eating is a way of avoiding uncomfortable emotions. Feelings like anxiety, loneliness, depression, and stress are common triggers for stress eating, as are guilt, shame, and frustration surrounding dieting and calorie restriction. Sugary and fatty foods can offer a temporary mood boost when we’re feeling agitated or low. And because eating something tasty releases dopamine in the brain, strengthening the association between food and feeling good, it’s no wonder we want to reach for something soothing and happy when we’re feeling stressed — even if the relief from comfort food is only temporary.
The Physiology of Stress and Comfort Food
When you’re feeling stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol. This hormone can make you feel the urge to munch, particularly on salty, sugary, or fatty foods, even if you’re not actually hungry. Cortisol’s natural function is to restore balance and regulate blood sugar. As a stress response, cortisol is telling your brain to prepare for potential danger by consuming more fuel.
"Stress can lead you to ignore or lose track of your hunger cues, so some people stop eating when they’re stressed while others are prone to overeating."
Stress can lead you to ignore or lose track of your hunger cues, so some people stop eating when they’re stressed while others are prone to overeating. At the same time, increased stress levels can slow your metabolism. Whatever your stressors are, not having constructive strategies for dealing with those feelings can result in higher levels of cortisol — and overeating. Studies show that chronic stress leads to emotional eating, with elevated cortisol levels corresponding to weight gain.
“Stress-eating seems to have become an American past time,” says psychologist and life coach Shelia Forman, PhD. “Not only does it provide a distraction, a way to avoid focusing on the true cause of your pain, the food also causes biochemical reactions in the body which may temporarily relieve the stress. The problem is that while stress-eating may work in the short term, in the long term the cause of the stress is still there and is compounded by the remorse that comes from eating the excess food.”
Worse, chronic stress can result in longer term health problems like high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, digestive issues, and diabetes. It can also impair brain function, worsen existing conditions, compromise your immune system, and leave you in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. The good news is that both the body and brain can recover, and learning how to deal with stress can improve your health and overall wellbeing.
How to Stop Stress Eating and Find Other Sources of Comfort
It’s okay to seek comfort when you’re stressed. An occasional consolation treat is fine, but there are other healthier options. Given that it’s impossible to avoid stress entirely, what can you do to manage your stress and anxiety without turning to comfort food? The first step to putting an end to stress eating is to understand your triggers. A good way to start is take a moment before you eat and ask yourself, are you really hungry or is something else eating at you? If it’s not true hunger, pay attention to what’s pointing you toward food. Over time, you may see patterns begin to emerge, so you’ll be better prepared to avoid or remedy the situations that trigger you.
Another option is to simply remove those stress-eating comfort foods from easy reach. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever have a snack! But you can replace processed foods that are high in sugar and fat with healthier options. Eating regularly through the day helps regulate your blood sugar and helps to keep your emotions more stable.
"Physical exercise is a great option for improving both physical and mental health and there are many options to choose from, like going for a walk outside, unrolling your yoga mat, having a two-minute dance party, or getting in a good workout. Moving your body can make you feel better and calm your mind. "
An excellent strategy is to focus on other activities that reduce stress and lessen its impact on the body and brain. Physical exercise is a great option for improving both physical and mental health and there are many options to choose from, like going for a walk outside, unrolling your yoga mat, having a two-minute dance party, or getting in a good workout. Moving your body can make you feel better and calm your mind. Additional benefits include improved sleep, lowered blood pressure, and decreased heart disease. Exercise releases dopamine and serotonin, and a good workout can lead to a mood-boosting sense of accomplishment that can overflow into other self-care activities and healthy habits. Physical activity has been shown to improve memory and cognition, and some experts suggest exercise is as effective as antidepressants for treating anxiety and mood disorders. So when you feel your stress levels starting to rise, a good option is to get moving.
Meditation and breath work can also help soothe your mind and body and even prevent stress, according to the APA. Instead of turning to food, you can focus on indulging your non-taste senses for comfort — like lighting an aromatherapy candle or listening to soothing music. Other constructive, stress-busting activity ideas include calling a friend, journaling, or spending time in a hobby like model-building, playing a musical instrument, or knitting.
To cultivate a habit of stress-reducing activities, you can make appointments with yourself in your calendar to get your body moving, learn a new skill, or meet up with a friend. If you need additional help managing your stress levels and protecting your health, you can talk to your doctor or reach out for professional help.
Including a variety of stress-busting activities as you create a “new normal” will help you maintain a sense of overall well-being. By embracing positive coping strategies, you can lower your stress levels, guard against stress eating, and enjoy a more balanced life.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.