Many of us eat more when we feel stressed. In fact, “stress-eating” may be part of our body’s physiological response to high levels of physical and emotional stress. When we are stressed for long periods of time, our bodies release cortisol. This hormone is designed to prepare our bodies for even more enduring stress including possible periods of starvation. Thankfully, that is not something many of us who “stress-eat” need to worry about.
Cortisol has many functions in the body. One is that it helps the body relocate fat from the extremities to the abdomen. This is good for a pending famine but bad for the long-term health of the internal organs. The situation becomes a downward spiral in that the fat cells in the abdomen help trigger the development of more fat cells in the abdomen. Also, during periods of stress, the body decreases the ability to store energy. This causes cells to feel starved which tells the brain to eat more foods with readily available energy like those high in sugar and fat. Excess energy is then able to be stored for future use. Finally, cortisol helps control the appetite-stimulant hormones and factors in the brain by increasing appetite.
The great news is that there are things we can do to reduce stress and help our bodies out.
- Meditate – take time every day to breath deep. Focus on your breath and allow the tension and stress to melt away. There are great apps available to guide through meditation such as HeadSpace and Calm, not to mention countless free YouTube videos.
- Mindfulness – honor your cravings as they are real. Food has the ability to comfort us. When consuming foods high in sugar and fat, enjoy them slowly. For instance, if it is chocolate you are craving, start with a small chocolate chip. Study it with your eyes. Breath in its aroma. Place it on your tongue, close your eyes, and let it melt slowly. Focus on the flavors and textures as it melts away. Then reassess you craving. This technique works with any food.
- Start small – take smaller portions of food first then wait 20 minutes after you finish eating it. If you are still hungry, you can always go back for more. If it is something savory like potato chips, place a small handful in a bowl, clear away distractions, and focus on it. See tip #2.
- Hydrate – ensure that you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Sometimes our bodies will tell us we’re hungry when in fact, we are simply dehydrated. Drink a glass of water and wait 20 minutes and reassess your craving.
- Exercise – make sure you are routinely stretching your muscles and increasing your heart rate. Exercise releases endorphins which helps reduce stress. If you are without a gym, look to NIU Recreation and Wellness page on Facebook for free workouts. Otherwise, find your favorite music, crank it up and dance like nobody is watching.
- Laugh – Make a bowl of popcorn and put on your favorite comedy. Laughter releases endorphins that help reduce stress.
If your relationship with food involves binge eating or feelings of shame or guilt, you may be dealing with more than stress-eating. Contact NIU’s Nutrition Coaching for more guidance.
Megan Farris has a B.S. in Nutrition, Health, and Wellness from NIU and is an NIU Dietetic Intern and a 2020 M.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics candidate.