Have you ever wondered why you crave “comfort” foods when you’re stressed? The sweeter, the greasier, the saltier, the food the better! Chocolates, cookies, cakes, donuts, ice-cream, and greasy fried foods – nothing, is off limits when you’re stressed. Of course, alcohol and caffeinated beverages also play a big role in the mix of “stress busters” we’re drawn to.
The human body responds to danger by releasing a hormone, cortisol which signals the various body systems to prepare for fight or flight. Your heart races, your breathing quickens, and energy is made available to your muscles to prepare for action. When the danger has passed, your body is able to shut off this cascade of responses.
Your body sees stress as a danger and reacts accordingly. The problem with chronic stress is that this “flight or flight” response doesn’t shut off and the body thinks it needs energy to prepare for this on-going danger. To provide this energy, your brain signals you to eat high sugar and high fat foods.
In the short term, you actually feel better but in the long term these unhealthy “comfort” foods impact your health negatively. You gain weight around your abdomen, you feel tired instead of energized and in the worst-case scenario, you can develop chronic conditions like depression, diabetes, hypertension, stroke or heart disease.
Helpful strategies to combat stress eating include:
- Identify your emotions. Reflect about what triggers, or prompts, may be causing some of your stress eating habits.
- If you’re anxious, burn energy by going for a walk or dancing to your favorite song; if you’re exhausted, have a soothing cup of decaffeinated tea or a bath.
- Eat slowly and only when you are hungry
- Plan your meals and control your portion sizes
- Get rid of unhealthy foods in the home and don’t buy junk food from the supermarket
Psychologist Susan Albers has some additional tips to prevent stress eating:
- Replace your cravings with healthy alternatives.
- If you’re dying for a sugar rush, eat a small orange instead. Peeling the orange and smelling the citrusy scent creates a “meditative moment” to help calm you. In addition, the high vitamin C content of an orange strengthens your immunity in times of stress.
- If you’re craving something fatty, eat low calorie nuts like pistachios, which are rich in fiber, healthy fats and help regulate blood sugar. Make sure you get the nuts with the shell, the process of cracking the shell slows you down.
- Use your non-dominant hand to eat – if you’re right-handed, eat with your left hand, and vice-versa. It slows you down and makes you more mindful of your food — an important aspect of healthy eating. This is one of the easiest and most effective tricks.
Healthy stress-busting eating options:
- Complex Carbohydrate – whole grain cereals, whole grain bread
- Fatty Fish (Salmon, Catfish, Mackerel, sardines)
- Pistachios, other nuts and seeds
- Black Tea
- Raw veggies
- Low-fat Milk
Develop strategies to calm and distract yourself when you’re stressed. Limit your intake of alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, they worsen the effects of stress. Exercise daily – at least 30 minutes of moderate exertion. Exercise not only improves fitness and helps you lose weight, it has the marvelous additional benefit of boosting your mood by raising endorphin levels in the brain.