Breaking down the challenges and solutions to stress eating
Stress eating is a big challenge for many of the clients we see in our nutrition counselling practice. Stress not only changes our appetite regulation hormones but also can trigger emotional overeating as well as our everyday food habits for what, when and how much we eat.
Watch Andrea Holwegner address stress eating:
How does stress influence appetite hormones?
Short term bout of stress:
- Initially triggers our brain to unleash a cascade of hormones that shuts down appetite and lessens the desire to eat.
Chronic persistent stress:
- Stress and sleep deprivation trigger a range of physiological changes including higher levels of 3 hormones:
- insulin (blood sugar regulation hormone)
- ghrelin (hunger hormone)
- cortisol (stress hormone)
These hormone changes together can:
- increase appetite and overall motivation to eat
- food cravings for foods high in sugar or fat
- weight gain or an inability to lose weight if overweight
- increase the risk of other health issues such as diabetes and heart disease
How might stress influence eating habits?
Here are 10 ways stress may change your food intake:
- Time and energy for meal planning, shopping and cooking often sacrificed.
- Hard to establish critical routines and habits necessary for health.
- Difficult to plan ahead, be proactive and be positively motivated
- More likely to impulse-buy or grab convenient foods that may not be healthy.
- May lead to meal or snack skipping and sporadic eating.
- Mindless grazing without realizing what, when or how much you are eating.
- Inability to eat intuitively to honor your hunger and trust fullness cues.
- Emotional overeating to stuff uncomfortable feelings.
- Undereating in the day, triggering overeating at night.
- Increased speed of eating making it difficult to be mindful and respecting your body.
What can I do to help stress eating?
The solutions to address stress eating are as diverse as the reasons you are stressed in the first place. To begin exploring some solutions here are 3 tips that can really make a difference to feeling better about your eating habits during stressful times.
- Hone in your hunger
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.
Different types of hunger have different types of need. Short timeouts and slowing down allows us to assess if our hunger is one of the following (as defined by Craving Change (a cognitive-behavioural intervention for problematic eating).
- Stomach hunger (physical or medical necessity to eat)
- Mouth hunger (craving related to the senses)
- Heart hunger (emotional trigger or learned behavior)
Use a timer on your phone or goal or habit formation app such as Strides free app that can send you a reminder prompt to check-in on your food and hydration needs throughout your day.
Working with a Registered Psychologist and Registered Dietitian that specializes in emotional eating and eating disorders is your best bet to tackle solutions for stress eating and stomach, mouth and heart hunger. For more reading on this topic check out my newspaper column: Breaking the Habit of Nighttime Snacking and dealing with different types of hunger
2. 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”.
3. Target balance
Eat every 3-5 hours (3 meals and up to 3 snacks per day) to ensure you are fuelling 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.
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.