Why Does Stress Make Me Want to Eat?
Do you find yourself reaching into a bag of chips or cookies to tune out the day’s stress? Turning to ice cream after a breakup? Emotional eating and stress eating are common behaviors that many, if not most people, engage in.
Simply speaking, because it works. Until it doesn’t. Let me explain.
What Is Stress Eating?
Stress triggers our nervous system’s fight-flight (or freeze) response. That’s a big yay!…if we’re faced with a tiger or dealing with some other acute stressor.
But most often it’s not a tiger chasing us down.t. Usually it’s yet another long day at the office, a fight with a loved one, or some other form of lower grade stressor. Not to minimize how stressful these things can be, but it’s not a tiger.
The thing is, these stressors become chronic for many of us – they don’t seem to fully go away. That’s when the trouble really starts.
Unlike prehistoric humans who were able to regroup after running from the tiger, we just keep going and rarely give our bodies a chance to reset and shift into balance. They do that through the relaxation response. But as many of us know, relaxing isn’t always easy to make happen. Hence, many of us live in a constant state of activation of our sympathetic nervous systems (where the fight-flight response comes from). This keeps our hearts pumping faster, our blood pressures higher, our muscles tense and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our bodies – all to prepare for survival.
Except in most cases, it’s not about survival.
How Overeating Because of Stress Works
When we’re in a chronic state of stress, we desperately need something to ease us.
This is where eating comes in.
Generally speaking, when we’re under stress we crave high fat, high sugar, high carb, high load, or in other words, high calorie foods. What’s a calorie? Essentially, a calorie is energy, which is exactly what we need to “fight the tiger”.
We know exactly what we need under a state of stress – energy! When we take in these high-energy foods, there’s a feedback loop from the body to the brain that tells the brain to turn off the stress response, stop the cortisol, stop the adrenaline, “I’ve got everything I need to fight this tiger”.
In this way, eating turns on the parasympathetic nervous system and puts us into a state of relaxation.
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This is how eating works to alleviate stress. But again, it works until it doesn’t.
The problem is not that we emotionally eat. The problem arises when we lose track of the “three how’s”:
- How often we turn to food to cope.
- How much food we eat.
- How else we’re coping.
If we turn to food often, eating larger quantities than our bodies need physically (judged by feelings of discomfort or even pain), and don’t have many/any other coping tools, then emotional eating becomes emotional overeating, or even binge eating, which is a new stressor in and of itself.
Does Stress Make You Hungry?
Stress doesn’t make us hungry. But it can send you searching for food if you regularly use it to cope. That’s habit in action.
Again, that’s because eating makes us feel good. When we’re hungry, eating gently lights up reward centers of the brain that signal well-being. That’s part of the survival mechanism that keeps us turning to food. If we didn’t feel good after eating, we’d be less likely to do it regularly.
When we emotionally eat, we may not be hungry but it can still be a gentle experience that leaves us feeling well. Emotional overeating and binge eating, however, act like flood lights that eventually flip the switch from feeling good to more stress.,
We can use things besides food to light up, but not flood, our brain reward centers, too. They can help curb cravings that aren’t related to physical hunger. Often, though, they’re more like twinkle lights. So we need a lot of them to see.
Here are some examples:
- Listening to music
- Drawing, painting or other artwork
- Playing an instrument
- Taking a bath
- A cup of tea
- Movement (aka exercise)
- Talking to a friend
- Fresh air
- Listening to comedy
- Getting a pedi or mani
Yes, I put meditation is in there repeatedly – because it works!
I know, some of you may be asking, “These simple tasks really will get me to stop binge eating and overeating?”
No. And yes.
The reality is these things do soothe us, but not on their own. The idea is to incorporate many of them in our lives when times get tough.
Remember, we’re talking about EMOTIONAL eating – the normal and healthy practice of using food as a coping tool to alleviate difficult emotions. One more time — emotional eating works, until it doesn’t. Then it’s time to turn to other activities like these to finish the job.
Here at Green Mountain at Fox Run we’ve been helping women develop practical and effective stress management strategies for over 40 years, knowing that this is what stress eating is all about. For those whose eating behavior has become more distressing, our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating offers a deeper look into the roots of disordered eating, helping women gain insight into their own process and develop personalized plans for healing.
 Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of “comfort food”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol.100, no.20. 11696–11701. Mary F. Dallman*, Norman Pecoraro, Susan F. Akana, Susanne E. la Fleur, Francisca Gomez, Hani Houshyar, M. E. Bell, Seema Bhatnagar, Kevin D. Laugero, and Sotara Manalo.