Just about every romcom has that scene with the heartbroken gal on the couch, bawling her eyes out and eating her way through a tub of ice cream. Stress eating is so commonplace it’s become a cliché – and one that many of us can identify with.
Recent studies have proven that it’s not all in our heads either: certain biochemical stress reactions can trigger cravings for comfort foods that are high in fat and sugar.
Is stress eating caused by our hormones?
Cortisol is one of the hormones that may contribute to these cravings for sugary and fatty foods, and is also known to increase the appetite. Abby Courtenay, a dietician, explains that cortisol is released in response to prolonged stress or low blood sugar levels, and acts by increasing blood sugar levels. “Many people experience prolonged psychological stress on a daily basis and it is hypothesised that constantly raised cortisol levels, and subsequently blood sugar levels, results in an increased production of insulin (the hormone which helps your body use the blood sugar) which in turn promotes weight gain,” she says. This can, in turn, lead to ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as diabetes and even heart disease.
Serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ chemical, may also play a part, as it is elevated when the body is processing carbohydrates. This makes it all that much more enticing to reach for something unhealthy when we’re feeling down.
A 2007 study published in Nature Medicine has shown that our bodies may process foods differently when we’re under stress. Researchers have isolated a molecule called neuropeptide Y, which is released from nerve cells during stress, and has been shown to cause fat accumulation.
Other factors such as bad meal planning due to lack of time, skipping meals and then snacking on convenience foods and mindless eating as a result of stress may all be to blame too.
4 steps to break the cycle
Here are some suggestions for how to break the cycle between stress and obesity:
1. Your first step is to identify your challenges. “Before being able to make changes, you need to identify what needs to be changed," says dietitian Deborah Talbot. "Do you eat without thinking, go shopping when you are already hungry, or buy the quickest food to make because you have too much to do?” Figure out what your weaknesses are and act accordingly.
2. Face your stress head-on. Courtenay recommends exercise as a great stress-reliever, as well as spending time with friends or seeing a therapist. “Try reduce the number of stressors in your daily life,” she advises.
3. Don’t skip meals. “When you skip a meal you will become ravenous and fast foods will look that much more enticing,” says Courtenay. “Being mindful about what you are eating goes out the window and you will eat more than you need. Blood sugar control is vital. Eat foods that will keep you feeling fuller for longer. A combination of high-fibre, whole carbohydrates and vegetables, protein and healthy fats will do the trick.”
4. Plan ahead. Planning makes healthy choices much easier, says Talbot. Plan out your meals for a few days at a time and shop in advance to make it easier on yourself. Courtenay adds that buying pre-chopped fruit and vegetables or pre-prepared sources of protein (for example, rotisserie chicken or tinned salmon) may cut down on time for you if you’re very busy.
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