Stress in and of itself isn’t bad; it’s something that we all have to deal with. The problem with stress is when it gets to be too much, and you try to deal with it in unhealthy ways.
One of those unhealthy ways is eating that stress.
Sooner or later, stress comes knocking on everyone’s door. Everyone deals with it differently, one common way for a lot of people (particularly with chronic stress), is eating. When we are stressed, our bodies release a stress hormone called cortisol, as well as the hunger hormone, ghrelin. These two hormones work together to encourage you to eat.
Ghrelin stimulates your body to release dopamine in the brain, which tells the body that it’s time eat. Combine that with cortisol which is what triggers our cravings for foods that are salty, sweet, and fried which is a comfort food trifecta. When you’re stressed out and feeling at you’re lowest, you’ve suddenly have a strong appetite and an intense desire for foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. Unfortunately, that sense of energy and joy are usually short lived.
Because more than likely, you’re not really eating because you’re hungry, you’re eating because you’re stressed. Now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “how am I supposed to know the difference?”
The Difference Between Stress Hunger And Physical Hunger
There are a ton of differences between eating because you’re stressed out and eating because you’re truly hungry and your body physically needs fuel. However, when you’re stressed out to the max, it can be difficult to tell the difference. But I’ve listed below 5 simple ways to have a mindful moment so that you can tell the difference between wanting to eat because your stressed and wanting to eat because you physically need to.
Stress hunger: comes on suddenly and feels overwhelming. You must have (insert your comfort food of choice) and you have to have it right now! Physical hunger happens gradually and doesn't demand to be instantly satiated.
Stress hunger: is all about the specifics. You crave a specific type of food. When you are physically hungry, eating anything at all sounds good. You just want something to eat.
Stress hunger: usually leads to mindless snacking. You eat and eat without really paying attention to how much you’re eating. However, when you’re eating because of physical hunger, it’s easier to be aware of how much you are eating and stop when you’re full.
Stress hunger: your stomach is like a big empty pit. You eat, but you want more. Because you’re not responding to physical hunger pangs, but to cues in your mind. So, you may continue to eat when your stomach is full. Physical hunger is satiated when your stomach is full.
Stress hunger: Depending on the amount of frenzy present when eating in response to stress, there may be feelings of guilt. Why guilt? Anyone who’s eaten a whole pint of ice cream or an entire bag of chips knowing it isn't good for you understands.
How You Can Stop Stress Eating
One of the first steps in stopping the stress eating is being aware of what’s happening and that you’re eating as a response to the stress in your life. Which means that you can begin using some of the stress management techniques you’ve learned about here at the Making Time blog.
The real issue is the stress and that needs to be dealt with to completely overcome stress eating. One of the best ways to overcome stress eating is to take mindfulness training. A study that was published in the Journal of Obesity found that women who took mindfulness training were less likely to stress eat. Some of this mindfulness training included learning stress reduction techniques, how to effectively recognize hunger, and how to pay attention to the taste of the foods they were eating.
Eating for joy or to make yourself feel better isn’t always a bad thing. As I stated earlier, take a mindfulness moment. It will help you recognize the reason you’re reaching for those snacks so that you can do so in moderation. Focus on the taste and texture of what you’re eating. Enjoy one brownie instead of the whole batch, or one bowl of ice cream instead of the whole tub.
Eat To Beat Stress
Food = Life. There are so many ways to interpret that statement. Having food literally means having life as you need to eat to sustain your life. Food also has a way of making life enjoyable and fun. It nourishes you and gives comfort and joy.
Eating the right foods can help you fight back against stress.
Less anxiety and guilt related to eating the wrong type of food.
Vitamins and minerals necessary to repair your cells from the inside out.
Fuel needed to not only survive, but to thrive (you’ll have the energy to make it through your stress buster exercise routine).
Increase in the hormones (such as serotonin) that help you feel good.
Read on to find out what foods you should have more of in your diet and what foods you should have only in moderation.
Stress Fighting Foods
High in Fiber, Rich in Complex Carbohydrates
Serotonin is a “feel good” hormone that contributes to relaxation and according to researchers from MIT, (On Brain Serotonin, Carb Craving, Obesity And Depression, Wurtman) complex carbohydrates (healthy sources) are one of the things believed to trigger it to be released into the body.
Fiber is a powerhouse. It helps you to feel full which should help you sidestep those early evening or late-night junk food binges that are so easy to give into when you’re particularly stressed. Baked sweet potatoes are one example of a high fiber rich complex carbohydrate. Another great food that fits into this category is oatmeal. Not only is oatmeal soothing when you’re stressed because it’s warm and fills you up, according to WebMD, oatmeal also lowers blood sugar levels and provides antioxidants which helps manage your stress levels.
Fruits and Veggies
Every once in a while, I love to indulge in a veggie platter (hold the ranch). It gives you bite sized variety which is helpful if you’re experiencing a busy time in life.
Over time, chronic stress destroys your immune system which makes it difficult to ward off disease. That’s why it’s so important to boost your intake of foods that support your immune system. Because your health is your wealth. Fruits and veggies like carrots, citrus fruits and acorn squash provide the vitamins and minerals you need to help bust stress.
According to WebMD, Vitamin C commonly found in oranges can help curb the stress hormones and also boosts immunity. One study found that levels of cortisol (the main stress hormone) returned to normal in subjects who received vitamin C following a stressful task.
Blueberries are blue because of a pigment called anthocyanin. It doesn’t just make blueberries dark, it also boosts dopamine production in the brain, which is crucial for your mood, coordination, and memory function.
Avocados which aren’t always thought of a fruit, even though they are, have tons of good stuff to ease your stress. Avocados are a health form of fat and they have folate, potassium, the vitamin B complex, and Vitamin E. They also provide potassium, which helps reduce high blood pressure which is great for stress management.
Eating half of an avocado at lunch can help keep you full and leads to less snacking between meals. That doesn’t mean eating only that for lunch, rather in addition to your normal lunch. They’re also efficient at keeping blood sugar levels stable, which then keeps your mood level (even when you’re under stress).
When you were told as a child to eat your vegetables, you know that leafy greens were definitely at the top of that list. Folate rich foods (like spinach) help produce dopamine and serotonin, which help regulate (re: improve) your mood. Those who consume high levels of folate are at a reduced risk of depression. Spinach is also rich in magnesium. Too little magnesium can cause fatigue and headaches, which makes stress worse. If you hate spinach, you can opt for salmon or cooked soybeans instead, both of which are high in magnesium. Other leafy greens such as kale, collard, mustard and turnip provide a wealth of stress busting benefits as well.
According to Harvard Medical School Health Publications, there’s a direct link between your gut health and feelings of anxiety, stress or depression. Your body’s good bacteria heavily influence your brain chemistry and the signals that your brain receives. Regularly eating fermented food such as sauerkraut, kefir, or yogurt can reduce your stress levels thus relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. You can either buy premade fermented foods or make your own which is preferable because you’ll know exactly what went into your meal.
Pistachios are not only tasty, they’re great for reducing vascular constriction, which typically happens during stressful situations. This reduces the pressure on your heart and helps manage stress. It isn’t just the contents of the pistachio either; the very act of shelling the pistachios can become contemplative. You should choose organic nuts whenever possible.
Foods That Make Stress Worse
Cheeses, meats, and a lot of baked goods will leave you feeling lethargic. Unhealthy fats thicken the blood, increase the risk of heart attack, and contribute to stress. Choose lean proteins.
Caffeine provides us with the energy boost needed to make it through our activities of the day. Tea and coffee being the most popular forms of caffeine. Both tea and coffee have a wide variety of health benefits. However, you have to be careful not to indulge too much as that will only fuel sleepless nights which cause you even more stress and worry.
Try to limit your intake by cutting off the supply after 2 pm to reduce any feelings of jitters so you can get a better night’s sleep.
Sugar is everywhere in the US diet. It’s a simple carbohydrate which means that it causes crashes of energy because it quickly floods the blood stream and then leaves just as fast. Which wreaks havoc on your body and contributes to physical and mental stress. So, it’s optimal to cleaner forms of energy.
Diet and stress are linked together so how you handle one directly impacts the other. After all, the saying ‘you are what you eat’ wasn’t created out of thin air. Making the right decisions regarding the food that you eat will ensure that you stay ahead of the stressors in your life. It’s all about making time.
Let’s talk, what’s your go to food to help you manage your stress? Let me know in the comments section.
Cassandra Martin-Himmons is a trainer, wellness coach and consultant who believes in empowering her clients and providing the tools that they need to make positive changes in their lives to manage their stress and increase their self-care. In her spare time, she enjoys papercrafting, volunteering and travel. Connect with her on Instagram or Linked/In