Stress Eating – a pitfall to avoid

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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:


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

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Healthy stress-busting eating options:

  • Complex Carbohydrate – whole grain cereals, whole grain bread
  • Oranges
  • Spinach
  • 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.

Stress overload – Recognizing the symptoms

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Do you think illness is to blame for your aches and pains, the “malaria” that never gets better, your sleepless nights or inability to concentrate at work? Stress may actually be behind it all. Stress may be affecting your health, and you don’t even know it!

Stress can be caused by external circumstances but also by internal issues resulting from your personality or character.

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Common effects of stress

Stress can affect your body, your thoughts and emotions, and your behaviour. Stress that’s not properly managed can contribute to a variety of health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Stress can even interfere with your ability to store information in your memory and pull information from memory. This clearly has serious implications for work productivity and even being able to manage the day-to-day running of a family.

Recognising the signs and symptoms of stress overload, will allow you to take steps to reduce the harmful effects.

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If you’ve visited the doctor repeatedly for any or some of these symptoms and all the tests are negative, you might want to consider that stress could be the culprit.

In our next post, we’ll explore some effective stress management strategies.


The Harmful Effects of Stress

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Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened, are demanding or upset your balance in some way.


When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for emergency action. Your heart beats faster, you breath harder and quicker, muscles tighten ready for action, blood pressure rises, and senses become sharper. These changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and improve your focus. This is the “fight or flight” stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you from danger.


Stress isn’t always a bad thing. A healthy level of stress actually helps you stay focused and energetic. It can help you perform well under pressure, motivate you to do your best, and keep you alert and ready to avoid danger.


Life is full of frustrations, challenges, and demands. Stress becomes negative when you face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. Stress then becomes overwhelming, and can damage your physical and mental health, relationships, and even your quality of life.


Research shows that humans have three ways of responding to stress:


Social engagement is the best strategy for feeling calm and safe in a stressful situation. It involves making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, and feeling understood— all of which can calm you down and stop defensive responses like “fight-or-flight.” When using social engagement, you think and feel clearly, and body functions such as blood pressure, heartbeat, digestion, and the immune system continue to work uninterrupted.


Mobilization – otherwise known as the “fight-or-flight” response. When you need or think you need to either defend yourself or run away from danger, and social engagement is not the right response for the situation, the body prepares for mobilization. Stress hormones are released to provide the energy you need to protect yourself. Body functions not needed for fight or flight—such as the digestive and immune systems — stop working. When the danger has passed, your nervous system calms the body back down to normal, slowing heart rate, and lowering blood pressure.


Immobilization. This is the most damaging response to stress and is used by the body only when social engagement and mobilization have failed. You’re in an angry, panic-stricken or otherwise dysfunctional state, unable to protect yourself or move on. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness. However, until your body is able produce to a fight or flight response, it may be impossible for your nervous system to return to its pre-stress state of balance.



Effects of stress overload

Many of us respond to every minor stressor by immediately resorting to “fight or flight”. This response interrupts other body functions, clouds judgment and feeling, and over time can cause stress overload and have a negative effect on both physical and mental health.


Your body’s nervous system isn’t always able to tell the difference between daily stressors and life-threatening events. So, if you’re stressed over an argument with your spouse, a traffic jam on your way to work, or a lot of debt, for example, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-threatening situation. When you experience the fight or flight stress response over and over again, in your daily life, it can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you at risk for mental and emotional problems.


In our next blog we’ll learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress overload, and take steps to reduce the harmful effects.