Whether it’s an upcoming deadline for work, a disagreement, divorce, job interview or financial problems; stressful situations always seem to trigger cravings for the wrong type of foods.
Watching TV with your favorite pizza and strawberry ice cream may appear to be an easy solution for emotional troubles, but halfway through your comfort meal is usually when guilt and frustration kick in. (Over)eating is a common coping mechanism to reduce stress.
This article will explain why we eat junk food when we are stressed. It will also offer some key tactics that you can use the next time you are under stress and reach for that cookie jar.
Stress and the Fight or Flight Response
Everyone experiences stress; it’s a regular part of life. You may feel stress when there is too much on your plate, or you didn’t get enough sleep.
You may also feel stress when you worry about your finances, relationships, your job, or a family member or friend who is ill. Your body reacts to these strains by automatically increasing your respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism and the blood flowing to your muscles.
This response, also known as the “fight-or-flight response” is meant to help you cope quickly and adequately with a high-pressure situation.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
A little stress is good, as it can motivate you and help you become more alert and productive.
But if you are constantly under stress and pressure and you are not making any adjustments to counter the effects, you will experience chronic stress.
Unfortunately, this chronic stress may have a negative impact on your physical, mental and social well-being.
If you respond to stress in a negative way by smoking, drinking or eating the wrong type of foods, your health and happiness may suffer.
If you learn to understand your reaction to stressful situations, you can learn ways to handle stress more effectively.
Ultimately stress management does not mean that you should avoid or escape the pressures of modern society, but you should understand and learn how the body responds to these pressures.
It’s about developing a set of skills to deal with a stressful situation in a positive way — a way that that doesn’t put your health in jeopardy.
Why We Eat Junk Food When We Are Stressed
When you are under stress, your fight-or-flight response triggers your adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol into your bloodstream.
Cortisol increases appetite because the body is in need of energy to fight the stressor that you are facing.
Research shows that stress also interferes with hunger hormones, like ghrelin, which controls your appetite. If the stress is cutting into your sleep, a lack of sleep boosts your appetite even further.
In particular, stress tends to make us turn toward junk food. This is because these energy-dense foods provide a combination of high calories, sugar, and fat (1).
On the downside, these foods actually further add to your stress and lead to weight gain (2).
Lab tests on animals confirm this hypothesis; by putting an unknown rat in its cage, effectively stressing the lab rat, not only will it eat more, but also show a stronger preference for high-fat, high-carb foods than normal.
This preference for energy-dense foods makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Because stress involves a massive burst of energy use, you either fight the stressor or flee from the situation. So afterward, the body needs quick energy to rebuild depleted energy stores.
The Reason For Emotional Eating
A study from Cornell University explains that the reason for emotional eating comes from our body desiring instant pleasure rather than looking at long-term goals and needs (3).
Junk food is usually richer and results in instant gratitude. By creating satisfaction through junk foods you are deciding to eat based on how you feel right then and there.
It’s human nature that we want to avoid pain and seek relief. Stress eating happens when we want to disconnect from the moment and instantly change how we feel.
When we experience happy feelings, thoughts of long-term goals and overall satisfaction are activated.
It may seem a bit odd that one form of pleasure (read: comfort foods) can counteract the effects of a very different source of displeasure (read: stress).
But human beings do this all the time!
Burdened with a broken heart? Shopping seems to help.
Troubled with existential despair? Listening to Mozart might do the trick.
And at the end of a stressful day, many people like to seek solace in a double fudge brownie ice cream.
Take a Step Back: Mindset and Stress-Induced Eating
Eating certain types of food may indeed distract our attention from the unpleasant thoughts that we wish to avoid.
This food provides temporary distraction and comfort. However, it doesn’t solve the underlying causes of stress.
And not only that, but it’s also easy for stress snacking to become an ingrained habit.
In line with Pavlov’s work, we learn to associate high-sugar and high-fat foods with reduced feelings of discomfort related to stressful situations. So we form an unhealthy eating habit adequate for handling stress.
There is no problem with indulging in a guilty pleasure every once in a while but being aware of not just when, but also why you are eating, will certainly make a huge difference to your eating habits.
If you take a step back from the kitchen, drink a glass of water and think deeply about why you are eating and what you are eating, it can make a big difference in your overall diet and strategy.
Self-awareness is key, and sometimes healthy eating boils down to mind over matter.
Tactics To Curb Stress Induced Food Cravings
- Focus on the real issue: address what’s making you stressed instead of distracting yourself temporarily with food.
- Make plans with friends: comfort foods have been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness. By being in the company of friends, you can help fight these cravings (4).
- Think long-term: Just think for a minute about the future before you give in to stress eating. For example, focusing on how awesome you want to look on summer vacation.
- Get mindful: Learn to become aware of your feelings, accept the unpleasant feelings and direct your attention on your breathing. By doing so can fight the urge to reach for a snack.
- Relax: Do something that takes the pressure off and relaxes you: walk around the block, meditate or take a bath to decrease stress levels and allow cravings to pass.
- Be kind to yourself: if you’re understanding and kind to yourself, it’s easier to resist the urge to try to disconnect through stress eating. Also when you do stress eat, don’t beat yourself up over it and understand that this occurs to everybody once in a while.
- Learn to tolerate difficult feelings: Let yourself experience hard feelings, it will prevent you from having to dampen your feelings with unhealthy behaviors – such as eating.
- Don’t let yourself get hungry: If you let yourself getting too hungry, but also too tired, you leave yourself vulnerable to emotional eating as this leaves you less equipped to deal with urges or cravings.
There are many different stressors in life. If you learn to understand your reaction to stressful situations, you can learn ways to handle stress more efficiently.
Note that stress, usually, is a product of the mind, and if you can change your perception, even just a little, you will find yourself confronting fewer stressors in your life.
While energy-dense foods that combine high calories, sugar and fat may seem like a great road to comfort, foods high in nutrients and antioxidants actually decrease stress in the long run. These foods improve immune function and provide a steadier source of energy.
So next time when you find yourself under stress, instead of reaching for that bag of chips, use some of the above tactics to make healthier food choices.
And if you must indulge, accept it, really let yourself enjoy it. Sit down, let yourself relax, and taste that ice cream. But, do so in moderation and not on a daily basis! Allow yourself to savor one small treat rather than lose control and eat large amounts.
About the Author
Jorden Immanuel is a social psychologist and certified NLP practitioner from the Netherlands. He is also the founder of www.adrenalfatiguecoach.com – a specialized informative website dedicated to stress and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome. By way of his website Jorden helps individuals around the world to live a balanced, healthy life that’s in absolute alignment with their values.
2. Tsenkova, V., Boylan, J. M., & Ryff, C. (2013). Stress eating and health. Findings from MIDUS, a national study of US adults. Appetite, 69, 151-155
4. Troisi, J. & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: “Comfort Food” Fulfills the Need to Belong. Psychological Science, 22(6), 747-753.