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Ways to Manage Stress Eating

July 24, 2020

With many of us staying at home in the midst of the current pandemic, you may have found that your eating habits (and possibly your waistline) have changed. 

During periods of acute stress, we tend to lose our appetite. However, when stress persists, we may find ourselves stress eating. When we’re under chronic or long-term daily stress, a combination of hormones (cortisol, leptin, insulin, neuropeptide Y) influence many systems in our bodies and can disrupt physiological functions, including blood sugar management, sleep, and hunger. 

Chronic stress can affect not only our appetite but also our food choices and influence the reward value of certain foods. Stress eating usually involves cravings for high sugar and high caloric dense, or “comfort foods.” Unfortunately stress eating does not relieve stress and can have a negative impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

We can relieve stress eating by learning to manage stress in more effective ways as well as by becoming more aware of our eating habits. Mindfulness practices have been shown to help manage stress and cultivate healthy eating habits. Mindfulness is the ability to bring curiosity and care into your present moment experience. You could start to pay attention every time you find yourself turning towards food - perhaps being curious to notice whether you are even hungry, or if you are eating because you’re bored, stressed, lonely, or sad. If you notice that you’re eating because you’re stressed, you could pause and consider what would really soothe and comfort you in the moment, other than food. For example, would calling a friend support you? Or going out into nature, if possible? Or physical exercise? Or doing a mindfulness meditation practice? 

Mindful eating is an alternative to stress eating. With mindful eating you consciously choose what and how much to eat rather than eating on auto-pilot. You stay present with the experience of eating, allowing yourself to notice when you are truly hungry and when you’re satiated. You can begin to notice the rewards and benefits of eating certain foods rather than others. To learn more about mindfulness you can check out Jefferson’s Center for Mindfulness here.

References:

-Yvonne H. C. Yau, YHC,  Potenza MN. Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013 Sep; 38(3): 255–267.

-Adam TC, Epel ES.Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiol Behav. 2007 Jul 24;91(4):449-58. Epub 2007 Apr 14.

-Schellekens H1, Finger BC, Dinan TG, Cryan JF.  Ghrelin signalling and obesity: at the interface of stress, mood and food reward. Pharmacol Ther. 2012 Sep;135(3):316-26. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2012.06.004. Epub 2012 Jun 27.

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat

https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/eating_habits.html