When Stress Leads To The Cookie Jar
Emotional eating, who among us hasn’t reached for a bag of chips after an exhausting day at work or a jar of cookies during a painful breakup? Emotional eating can be defined as eating salty, fatty, or sugary foods to calm negative emotions. It’s a common but health risking way of dealing with stress. Therefore, it’s also known as stress eating.
Some stress eaters binge when they are sad or confused, while others avoid thinking about problems or taking the action required to solve them. Minh-Hai Alex, a registered dietitian and founder of Mindful Nutrition in Seattle, said that it’s perfectly human to want to avoid pain and seek relief in food.
“Stress eating usually happens when we want to disconnect from the moment. It’s like changing the channel in our brain to try to change how we feel.” – Minh-Hai Alex
So, why do some of us end up bingeing late at night or lying on the couch with a tub of ice cream when stress gets the better of us? Here are three main reasons for stress eating and some tips to help you stop.
Lack Of Time Or Money
When we are stressed, we generally have too much to do in too little time. With all the approaching deadlines, time for self-care gets discarded. You may not find the time to eat much during the day and be too hungry when you get home at night. You don’t want to think about what to cook for a meal or take the time to prepare it. You have little time to shop for food and you feel too hungry to wait for the food when you get home.
As a result, the fast food place or frozen food aisle, or the bag of cookies can be a very tempting, although far less healthy alternative. If money is scarce, you may choose for the cheaper processed foods, which are higher in fat, salt, and sugar, versus the more expensive fruits and vegetables.
Lack Of Awareness
Stress makes us mindlessly run around trying to multitask or move from one task to the next. This creates a “fight or flight” response in the brain, causing our bodies to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
While in this “fight or flight” mode, your brain urges you to keep going without taking a break. This leads you to be “unaware” of what you are doing because all your attention is focused on the task that needs to get done. Adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your muscles.
However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol (stress hormone) will remain to hang around and start signalling the body to replenish your food supply. As a result, you get hungrier for foods high in salt, fat, or sugar, that provide a quick solution. You may eat up to five cookies before you even realise it. Or you may try to multitask and eat while you are typing on your laptop, checking your smartphone or answering emails. This results in just stuffing the food down unconsciously without even tasting it properly. Your brain is less likely to recognise the signals that you are full, and you feel less satisfied, so you are more likely to overeat when you take a break mid-afternoon or at night.
Lack Of Sleep
Stress about money, relationships, work, or health causes us to be anxious about what’s going to happen, and we know that anxiety is a major cause of insomnia. If you consume caffeinated drinks to stay awake, or alcohol to relax, your sleep cycle will be even more disturbed. Sleep is a major factor influencing weight gain or loss. Lack of sleep may disrupt the functioning of ghrelin and leptin, which are hormones that control appetite.
Not getting enough sleep makes us feel more grumpy and depressed, which can make us more likely to run to the cookie jar to calm our feelings. Not sleeping well also depletes our willpower and ability to resist temptation. The evening is a high-risk time for stress eating because we have used up our willpower during the day and have less of it left to keep us from snacking after dinner or having that second serving.
A study by John De Castro, a psychology professor at the University of Texas showed that food is less satisfying and has less satiety when eaten late at night than during the day, so we are more likely to keep eating.
Tips To Stop Stress Eat
Some of these might seem simple and plain in theory, but it sure is not. It’s when you put it into action, because that’s what makes the difference. If there is something I have learned during my short life, is that you have to be a fool to believe that change is going to happen in your life while waiting.
Tip #1: Plan Your Meals
I’m not joking. Poor planning can cause you to eat junk food because you don’t have the energy to shop for and cook healthy food or because there’s no healthy food left in the fridge. Eat meals on a regular schedule. Those who eat late at night are less likely to have a regular meal and snack time.
Tip #2: When You Eat, Focus On Eating
Focus on eating means sitting down to eat a meal and not multi-tasking while you’re eating so you can pay attention to the food. Yes, this also means you should put your smartphone away. Consciously focus on what you’re hungry for, whether it’s food or emotional comfort. Focusing on the taste of each bite helps you tune into your body’s intuitive signals so you’re more likely to know when you’re full.
Tip #3: Get Rid Of Trigger Food
Most of us have foods we particularly crave that trigger us to overeat. High sugar foods like doughnuts can cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, leading to more hunger down the road. Try to keep those foods out of the house or to take only a small portion and then put the rest in a less accessible place.
Tip #4: Replace Alcohol With Relaxing Activities
We all know that drinking too much alcohol causes you to put on weight. Alcohol makes you less conscious, so you’re more likely to ignore your meal plans and eat junk food instead. And to add on top of that, alcohol also depresses your mood for up to three days.
Instead of consuming alcohol to unwind after a stressful day, plan some relaxing activities. Go for a walk or to the movies, build up a regular exercise routine, meet a friend, take a hot bath or light a scented candle. Learning to meditate by focusing on your breath can also lessen mental stress, and meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure if practised regularly.
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