The relationship between stress and unhealthy eating habits


The relationship between stress and unhealthy eating habitsI had a really bad day! Where are those potato chips anyways?

I can’t believe the day I’ve had…I’m going to have a piece of that cake in the fridge, because after a day like today, I deserve it!

You mean there are no more cookies left?! I can’t believe it after the day I’ve had! Do you know how badly I am craving one of those cookies right now?!!!

Do any of the above sound familiar to you? If you said “yes”, you are not the only one.  All of the above statements are examples of what you might be saying to yourself or someone else during periods in your day to day life where you have experienced or been in stressful situations – situations that challenged your mental, emotional or physical resources… or perhaps all three all at once.

We each have our own unique ways of responding to and coping with stressful situations, but for many of us, acute and chronic stress can quickly lead to unhealthy eating choices… and there are sound scientific facts behind this phenomenon.

“Stress eating”, as coined in the Harvard Newsletter titled Why Stress Causes People to Overeat , is the direct result of fluctuations in the various hormones which stress triggers. These hormones – such as Cortisol, Leptin, Epinephren and Ghrelin – modulate your experience of hunger and can directly impact not only your perception of fullness vs. hunger, but also the types of foods you crave.  Stress in the short-term can actually reduce appetite, but if stress continues then the level of cortisol in your blood increases and with it, your appetite. Additionally, heightened levels of cortisol can trigger cravings for very specific types of food, namely, foods that are salty, sweet and high fat… what we commonly refer to as comfort foods.

And it gets even more complicated!  In the article Emotional Eating: How to Recognize and Stop Emotional Eating, the authors detail how stress can be in part a result of variables such a lack of sleep.  Lack of sleep can in turn inadvertently increase your likelihood of overeating, and this is why: when you don’t get sufficient sleep, the hormone Ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite, increases, while the hormone Leptin, which tells your brain that you are full, decreases.  This leads to a situation where your body is not only sleep deprived, but your resulting hormones are signaling you to eat more and yet not feel full.

So, we now know that stress can keep you up at night, and staying up at night despite your best efforts to get a good night’s rest can lead to increased appetite and reduced coping capacities and functioning overall.  What is also interesting is that there are some other things which are associated with being stressed which could also be at the root of or even perpetuate weight gain; these include, exercising less and consuming alcohol in larger quantities.

While the circumstances detailed above may be sobering, you can also use your awareness of the above to try and put yourself in the driver’s seat and say “no” to the cookies, pizza, and cheesecake when they seem to be calling for you the most. Here are some suggestions for how to use your awareness to practice new, healthier responses to stress:

Practice forms of relaxation such as meditation and yoga.  Meditation reduces stress overall so it’s a good technique to add to your stress-busting arsenal.  And, as detailed in the blog Losing weight through meditation, mediation can also be used to help combat weight gain by supporting greater self-awareness as a means to interrupt your reflexive cravings for unhealthy food with little nutritious value.

Exercise.  Exercise can help combat stress by enhancing your physical and emotional strength and resiliency, helping support successful weight management, and keeping you focused on replacing unhealthy eating behaviours with a healthier alternative.

Access social supports.  Connecting with others who care about you and whom you care for can have a powerful and positive impact on your life.  These supports can be pillar of encouragement during difficult times in your life and can help steer you in the right direction when you are feeling adrift.

Stress Management.  Finding and implementing a plan that begins with helping you become aware of where your stress lies, and ultimately leads to the incorporation of new techniques and strategies to cope more effectively is what stress management is all about.   Shepell·fgi’s new program Stress Coach Connects offers just that – an opportunity to self-asses the degree of stress in your life and receive a customized report with recommendations and tools to help you put a plan in place that will help you more effectively respond to stress.  Some of the key features of the program include:

  • An interactive dashboard comprised of various widgets that are used to track and view progress
  • Goal-setting and action tools that are determined by the stress report
    • Trackers to measure daily mood and stress levels
  • Live professional support anytime via First Chat tool
  • And more!

There are various tools within Stress Coach Connects to help increase your awareness of what’s going on in your life and the impact it’s having on your overall stress level and mood.  With these tools and a personalized report indicating where you are experiencing the most stress, you can move through the program at your own pace to learn and practice new ways of thinking and behaving…all in the pursuit of your desired end goal: less stress.

Comfort foods may provide short-term comfort in the face of stress, but the long term effects of over-relying on this method of soothing ourselves when the world is not going our way can be palpable.  So, next time you have had a tough day and you here the ice cream calling your name from the freezer, stand tall, stand back and remember that there are other things that you can do to make you feel better – today and for the future!

By Sara Marchese

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