Stress Awareness Month: Are you stress eating?

Stress Awareness Month: Are you stress eating?

‘Are you feeling stressed?’ is probably a rhetorical question for most of the world right now. And while there are plenty of jokes about over eating during quarantine, for many it is a difficult issue.

Between home working, homeschooling, anxiety over the threat of coronavirus and the uncertainty of isolation, we are all super stressed.

April is Stress Awareness Month, and one of the ways our stress can often manifest is through eating. Many turn to food when we’re busy, bothered and bewildered by the amount we have to do right now.

If you’ve prepared for isolation you may well have full cupboards and a fridge or freezer that now call out to you all hours of the day. From the biscuit tin to the bread bin via the stocks of crisps and snacks, the temptation to turn to food when things are getting on top of us has arguably never been greater.

Working from home plus snacks and time on our hands can equal stress eating (istock/PA)
Working from home plus snacks and time on our hands can equal stress eating (istock/PA)

Registered nutritionist Saadia Noorani says: “When you are feeling stressed your body sends out cortisol known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can increase your appetite and may make you crave sugary, salty and fatty food because your brain thinks it need fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.

Nutrition expert, Jenny Tschiesche (www.lunchboxdoctor.com), adds: “Stress eaters tend to eat mindlessly, that is to say without thought for why they’re eating.  Significantly, they also tend to crave sweet foods and unhealthy, processed foods when stressed. Essentially, stress can lead to the brain telling us to seek pleasure from food that is high in fat and sugar,

“It has been shown that if stress is experienced again and again our body simply ramps up the production of cortisol.

“This escalating production of cortisol sends signals to the brain to seek pleasurable foods high in fat and sugar and then sends excess calories to the abdomen which is why stress eaters often carry their weight around their belly as opposed to their whole body.”

Stress eating vs comfort eating

Many people “comfort eat” and for some it isn’t a huge problem, reveals transformational coach Katherine Baldwin who has worked with clients who experience stress eating .

“It’s momentary. The problem is when comfort eating turns into binge eating, which can lead to weight gain, or when we become mentally obsessed with what we’re eating, how much we’ve eaten or how much weight we’ve gained.

“Stress eating can be overlooked. We can rationalise it. Many people eat more than they need on occasion. In some cases, it doesn’t impact our weight or our mental health.

“But the problem is when it turns into a mental obsession, impacts our health or derails other areas of our life, such as our relationships. By eating on stress, we disconnect from ourselves and our true feelings. This disconnection from self makes it very difficult to have healthy relationships with others.”

Managing the emotions not the food

Stress eating is also sometimes called “mindless eating” so one of the first things to do is try and be aware of your triggers, says Tschiesche. “One way to check in with yourself is to maintain a food journal, either in physical journal form or on an app.”

Baldwin agrees that a food diary is a simple way to keep track of things when the world is in chaos around you. “A relaxed food diary will help us to see whether it’s time to eat, whether we’re actually hungry, and to pinpoint the times when we’re reaching for food to mask our emotions.

“It will also help us to identify the triggers that lead to overeating so that we can avoid those triggers,” she says.

So how can we try and find balance, especially in a world where we are faced with ‘all the food’ at home in isolation?

Getting your body moving is a great way to get your endorphins flowing, and can provide a distraction by simply taking up the time that you might otherwise be snacking or mindless eating.

“Eating a healthy and balanced diet is key to helping our bodies manage the physiological changes caused by stress,” says Noorani.

“Choose wholegrains, pulses fruit and vegetables. Wholegrain cereals, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruit and vegetables are rich in a range of vitamins and minerals that our body needs to function properly. They are also digested slowly helping to control our blood sugar levels.”

Also include oily fish in your diet if you can, she says.  “It is recommended to eat at least two portions of fish a week, of which one should be oily. Currently we aren’t meeting this recommendation in the UK. Oily fish include salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring. A portion is 140g.”

Making careful swaps

Some, but not all, stress-based eaters find that simply swapping in healthier alternatives can help,  says Tschiesche.

“Those who crave chocolate for example can find a couple of squares of dark chocolate in place of copious amounts of milk chocolate or some San Pellegrino water with fruit juice in place of fizzy drinks can help for example.”

And drink lots of water!  Noorani says: “Aim to drink at least six to eight glasses of non-caffeinated drinks during the day as even slight dehydration can affect your mood.”


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