Diet & Nutrition 6 MIN READ 142 VIEWS June 12, 2022

Stress Eating – Its Causes, After-Effects, and Ways to Avoid It

Written By HealthKart

Stress eating
What is Stress Eating
Stress Eating vs True Hunger
Stress Eating Symptoms
Causes of Stress Eating
Health Implications of Stress Eating
How to Avoid Stress Eating
When to Seek Medical Help
Conclusion

The foods that we love eating can act as a potent stress-buster. Thus, people take food as a potent mechanism to help them soothe or suppress negative emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, loneliness, and boredom. While this mechanism of stress eating helps reduce stress levels, it’s not a good practice to follow. Let’s read to know what causes stress eating, what are the prominent stress eating symptoms, and how to avoid stress eating.

What is Stress Eating?

The functioning of the body depends upon a complex interaction of hormones. When a person finds himself in a fight-or-flight situation or is excited, the nervous system sends a signal to the adrenal glands placed atop the kidneys. 

The adrenal gland begins to pump out adrenaline hormone which prepares the body to handle the situation. As the body’s fight-or-flight response, the internal functioning of the body undergoes a crucial change. The increased adrenaline levels in the blood cause the air passages to dilate, helping muscles receive more oxygen. 

The heart rate and blood pressure increase and blood vessels begin to contract as they redirect the blood to the vital organs of the body – the heart and the lungs. And as the body’s physiological state revs up to face the situation, eating automatically suppresses. 

But if the frequency and intensity of stressful situations increase, the adrenal glands release cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. The increase in cortisol levels in the body increases appetite. 

Thus, a person resorting to stress eating is both a cause and effect of stress. 

Interestingly, men and women have different stress-coping behaviours. While women are more likely to resort to stress eating, men prefer alcohol and smoking. 

Stress Eating vs True Hunger

Stress eating is different from true hunger. While true hunger gradually increases and is fuelled by an empty stomach, it can be satisfied by eating anything. On the other hand, stress eating ignites the urge to eat immediately and quickly. 

The feeling is triggered by a specific event or mood and results in cravings for a specific food or food type. The worst part of stress eating is the guilt, regret, or shame one feels after an episode of stress eating.

Stress Eating Symptoms

The symptoms of stress eating include:

  1. Eating hurriedly than usual
  2. Eating until it feels too full
  3. Eating after regular meals when one is less likely to be hungry
  4. Eating alone to avoid embarrassment about the intake amount
  5. Feeling guilty after eating

Causes of Stress Eating

Stress eating is a result of an emotional bout. The feelings associated with stress eating may include:

  1. Anger
  2. Confusion
  3. Depression
  4. Frustration
  5. Loss
  6. Change
  7. Loneliness
  8. Boredom
  9. Resentment
  10. Guilt
  11. Happiness

Health Implications of Stress Eating

Stress eating directly leads to overeating. The health concerns related to overeating are aplenty. These include:

1. Accumulation of Excessive Body Fat 

If we eat more calories than what we burn, we end up packing the extra calories as body fat.

2. Disturbed Hunger Hormones 

Ghrelin and leptin are the body’s hunger hormones. Their levels help regulate appetite. While ghrelin helps stimulate appetite, leptin tells you when you are full. Stress eating disturbs this balance, disrupting hunger regulation.

3. Heightened Disease Risk 

Chronic stress eating increases the risk of many diseases and ailments including cardiovascular issues, obesity, and diabetes.

4. Hormonal Imbalance 

While stress eating is caused due to hormonal imbalance of the stress hormones, it further disturbs the balance of the hunger hormones, leading to health complications.  

5. Digestive Issues

Stress eating can cause an uncomfortable feeling of nausea, bloating, acid reflux, indigestion, etc. Increased pressure on the stomach may cause vomiting.

6. Fatigue and Lethargy 

While eating provides energy to carry out a day’s work, eating beyond capacity makes you sluggish and tired. This is because the blood sugar levels drop shortly after we eat a heavy meal. This phenomenon is called reactive hypoglycemia.

7. Guilt 

Once an episode of stressful eating passes, the feeling of guilt and regret are prominent. This guilt again fuels another episode of stress eating, resulting in a vicious circle with low self-esteem and feeling of little or no willpower. This often leads to the onset of depressive symptoms.

How to Avoid Stress Eating?

The best way to control stress eating is to be in control of your emotions. Managing stress levels through exercise and distraction is the key. Other ways to avoid stress eating include:

1. Recognise True Hunger

Stress eating happens when true hunger is settled. So, a good method to resolve stress eating is to question yourself before you reach out for food – ‘Are you hungry?’ Once you realise that you are not hungry, the brain will reduce the urge to eat.

2. Distraction 

Under stress eating, food acts as a distraction tool. But if we develop other ways of distracting our emotions, the inclination toward food will reduce. Keep a pet, go out for a walk, meet friends, or try other ways to distract your thoughts.

3. Know Your Stressors

Identify the circumstances and emotions that push you into stress eating. Once you are aware of your emotional triggers, developing a strategy to overcome the stressors is easy and achievable.

4. Regular Exercise

Exercise is the best way to reduce stress hormones which drive stress eating. Exercising helps the brain release happy hormones, which cut down on stress levels. But elevated stress levels hold back a person from exercising. So, to break this cycle, start with light exercises like walking and gardening.

5. Practise Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a practice which helps you focus on your feelings and senses in the present moment. This helps you calm down and relax immediately. Once you are calm and composed, the mind is in a better position to make healthier choices. Meditation, yoga, and tai chi are some of the most popular mindfulness-based programs.

6. Consider Intuitive Eating 

Intuitive eating is a practice that focuses on changing eating habits. This eating style requires you to pay attention to what, when, and how much you are eating. Thus, when followed in totality, it promotes a healthy attitude towards food and body image. 

7. Maintain a Food Diary 

Write down what you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat. Write about your hunger level and your feelings/mood when you have the urge to eat. Track your pattern between mood and food. It will give you crucial insights into how to stop stress eating.

8. Do Not Stock Comfort Foods at Home 

Take note of the foods you like to binge upon during stress eating. Avoid stocking these food items at home. 

9. Eat A Sumptuous Meal 

When eating your regular meals, include everything you wish to eat. Remember not to deprive yourself. But don’t overindulge either. Being satisfied and happy after a meal will help you carry forward the feeling and help cut down untimely stress eating.

10. Snack Healthy 

If the urge to eat between meals seems unwaning, munch only on healthy snacks. Stock your kitchen with fresh fruits and low-calorie healthy snack options.

11. Learn from Your Failure

Every day is a new experience. Do not carry forward the setbacks of one day onto the next day. Learn from the mistakes that you made and formulate new strategies accordingly. Focus on the positives and give yourself ample time to get through the habit of stress eating

12. Watch Your Portion Size 

Whenever you feel the urge to eat out of meals, remember to keep your portion size small.  

13. Get Support 

With a good fallback mechanism, you are more likely to handle stress eating effectively. Reach out for help from family, friends, or health groups. Collective support will help you get through tough situations easily.

When to Seek Medical Help

Managing stress eating is a day-by-day process. Formulate a daily strategy and follow it mindfully. But if the eating pattern seems out of your control, it’s essential to seek medical help. Talk to a counsellor or dietitian. A trained professional can help address both the mental and physical sides of stress eating. Stress eating, if left unaddressed, can escalate into binge eating disorder. 

Conclusion

You cannot let go of stress eating in a day. The habit will wean away slowly, only after careful management and conscious effort. Take stress eating as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your feelings. Dig deeper within to formulate strategies that you know will help you. And do not step away from seeking medical help, if required.

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