Stress Eating: How Stress Can Make Us Overeat And What to Do About It
Stress eating bringing you down?
It is no surprise that the more stressed we get, the worse our nutrition habits become.
Stress makes finding the time and energy for meal planning, shopping and cooking harder. Stress and sleep deprivation also trigger physiological changes in our hormones that drastically influence cravings, food preferences and hinder achievement of your personal best weight.
Effect of stress on appetite
A short-term bout of stress initially triggers our brain to unleash a cascade of hormones that shuts down appetite and the desire to eat. Chronic persistent stress, however, does just the opposite.
Persistent stress causes our adrenal glands to produce the hormone cortisol which increases appetite and influences overall motivation to eat.
Researchers have also determined that ongoing emotional or physical stress causes cravings for foods high in sugar or fat. These cravings are believed to happen as a result of not only high cortisol and insulin levels but also higher levels of the hunger hormone known as ghrelin.
5 stress busting nutrition tips
Move from mindless to mindful
When we are stressed we go about our day on autopilot and can find ourselves mindlessly either under or over eating.
Taking one-minute mindful check-ins throughout the day and simply asking yourself, “what do I need?” sounds so basic but profoundly impacts both mental and physical health.
Short timeouts and slowing down allows us to assess if our hunger is a physical food need or if we are emotionally hungry.
Clean up your environment
We often eat with our eyes instead of our stomachs (what I refer to as the “see-food diet”). When we are time strapped and distracted during times of stress this becomes even more likely.
Placing convenient healthy foods that you will see at home, work and in your vehicle is important. Place a colourful fruit bowl on your desk at work. Each week, place a large raw veggie and dip tray at the front of the fridge as the first things you see when you open the fridge.
Leave individual snack packs of dried fruit and nuts and water bottles in your car as quick grabs so you don’t arrive home “hangry.”
Our body is made up of approximately 50 percent water (our muscles are made up of about 70 percent water). This means if we are dehydrated we simply can’t function at our best.
I struggle to remember to drink enough fluids on busy days and had to implement some specific strategies to make sure I get enough.
I drink a glass of water first thing in the morning before I do anything and always sip fluids on the way home from work. I’ve also added accountability partners at work where everyone in my office knows they have full permission to bug me about water.
You may also want to consider a hydration app on your smartphone that will notify you to drink up. As a family we have also found purchasing a sparkling water machine has improved everyone’s hydration at home.
Target your timing
When we are stressed, planning, packing and choosing healthy meals and snacks often falls apart. This may trigger impulsive food choices that are not the best for your health or alternatively skipping food entirely.
Depriving your body of adequate food during the day not only increases stress hormones but leads to worsened energy, poor concentration and may increase depression.
Eat every three to five hours (three meals and up to three snacks per day) to ensure you are fueling your brain and body with productive energy. Adding a bit of structure to your day is helpful during times of stress so that you don’t mindlessly munch all day and over-consume or alternatively fail to eat enough and end up bingeing in the evening.
Combine carbs and protein
One of the most important aspects of effective energy and mood management to combat stress is to ensure you balance your meals and snacks with both carbohydrates AND protein. One without the other has a negative impact on your overall energy.
Your brain runs exclusively on carbohydrates. While portion sizes of carbohydrate-rich foods such as grains, starches and sweets are important (since it is common for many people to overeat these items) you do not want a carb-free diet. Following a very low carbohydrate diet that skimps on grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits can lead to fatigue, depression, anxiety and poor long-term health.
Meals without protein simply do not keep you full and sustained with vital energy and can lead to frequent hunger and cravings. Protein is found in foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, cheese, milk, yogurt, tofu, nuts, seeds and nut butter. Make sure to have a source of protein with all your major meals and snacks to feel your best.
Article originally published in the Calgary Herald Newspaper
Need more Dietitian support for managing cravings and tackling stress eating?
Check out these previous articles on our blog by our team of Calgary Nutritionists / Online Dietitians:
How to navigate emotional eating
Healthy eating meal and summer snack survival guide
Help for bingeing and binge eating disorder
How to break bad eating habits: Dietitian advice
One thing I’ve learned in my mindful eating journey…
You’ve heard of hangry but what about “hanxiety”?
How to manage sweets and treats without blowing your diet
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About Andrea Holwegner
CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker
Andrea the «Chocoholic Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more