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Dr. Kamilah Stevenson, CEO
Breaking Free: Conquering Stress Eating and Reclaiming Your Wellbeing
Healthy and Better
. https://www.kamilahstevenson.com/

Breaking Free: Conquering Stress Eating and Reclaiming Your Wellbeing

There’s a reason why some foods are called “comfort foods.” When one is stressed or grappling with anxiety, eating can bring temporary relief, but this kind of stress eating can lead to negative effects on one’s well-being. 

Getting a handle on stress eating can be challenging, as much of our emotional connection to food can be unconscious. Reclaiming one’s wellness back from the tendency to eat when feeling emotional can involve a number of approaches. 

What is stress eating?

Stress eating may sound like an excuse for binging to some, but it is a very real concept. In fact, Harvard Health Publishing studied the phenomenon and linked the pull to stress eat to the hormones produced by the body under stress. 

Persistent stress causes the body to release cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite. The comfort one may get from high-fat, sugary, or salty foods targets those stress hormones, causing a temporary cessation of stressful feelings, not unlike smoking a cigarette. Harvard also found through its studies that stress can affect the type of foods we are drawn to, namely those high in unhealthy fats and sugar. 

Stress-induced eating is a cycle, and breaking that cycle can be difficult, especially if one has become accustomed to turning to food to help dampen symptoms of stress and anxiety. Once the body realizes that comfort foods do their job, it will continue to crave those foods whenever stress is high.

The negative effects of stress eating 

Many of us probably discovered the negative effects of stress eating during the pandemic. While some folks took the time in lockdown to work out or finally stick to a healthy lifestyle, others took stress eating to a whole new level — and many are still dealing with the fallout. 

Outside of the extra pounds that stress eating can bring about, there are many other negative effects to be concerned with. Stress eating can also lead to lethargy, stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues, feelings of isolation or shame, as well as eventually being unable to tell the difference between emotional hunger and genuine, physical hunger. 

Stress eating can also take a toll on one’s mental and emotional health. When we participate in behaviors that we know are detrimental to our health, there can be a level of shame and depression that follows the action. One can feel out of control, as if they can not stop turning to food in stressful situations even if they wanted to. 

Breaking the cycle 

Breaking the cycle of stress eating requires self-awareness and dedication to making meaningful lifestyle changes. There are several ways people can start to tackle an issue with stress eating.

Recognizing triggers

Being aware of what situations or kinds of stress trigger the “fight or flight” response that leaves you craving excess sugars or fats is the first step towards breaking the cycle. Everyone has different stressors that set them off. Perhaps ongoing work stress is leading you to stop at the drive-thru every night, or financial worries have you mindlessly snacking on chips throughout the day. Pinpointing what stressful situations make you want to eat can help you tackle those situations in a different way, instead of attempting to squash the stressful feelings under food. 

Emotional awareness

Much like recognizing triggers, people need to become more aware of their emotions and how those emotions impact their eating behavior. Becoming aware that heavy emotions in the past have led you to eat can help you recognize that behavior and avoid it in the future. 

Mindful eating

Once triggers and emotions are recognized and addressed, people should learn to practice mindful eating. Often, when we are stress eating, we are out of the moment and simply trying to make the stressful feelings stop, so we are not aware of how much we are eating, how unhealthy the food may be, or when we should reasonably stop. 

When we are present in the moment and aware of what we are eating, as well as how much, and for how long, we can better assess our choices. Mindfulness also includes being aware of how our bodies feel, so we can pay better attention to whether we are actually hungry, or just trying to eat away a feeling. We can also be more in tune with whether or not we are full. 

Healthy coping mechanisms

When we recognize that stress triggers a cycle of unhealthy eating and work to stop that behavior, that behavior needs to be replaced by healthy coping approaches. Exercise, meditation, deep breathing, or journaling can all be helpful and meaningful responses to stress. 

Support systems are also important. Stress eating responses can cause isolation, as those who stress eat may feel so much shame that they do so alone — sometimes even in secret. Speaking to those they trust and asking for their help to stop the cycle of stress eating can be a helpful way to break that isolation. 

Lastly, self-care is always of paramount importance. While eating your favorite comfort foods when you’re stressed may seem like self-care, the negative effects on your health and well-being say otherwise. Self-care practices include getting adequate sleep, practicing relaxation techniques, enjoying leisure time and hobbies, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle. This is not to say that damaging high-fat or sugary foods are always completely out of the question, but should be indulged in moderation rather than as a response to stress. 

Stress eating is something many people turn to when things get difficult. By recognizing triggers and applying healthier coping strategies in times of stress, people can break the cycle of stress eating and find their way to better overall wellness. 

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