Does stress eating seemingly control your life??
Well it doesn’t have to.
I understand stress eating all too well.
During college, it was not uncommon for me to lose control the days leading up to a test. I remember one day distinctly where my mom had made these amazing chocolate cupcakes (I still have a picture of them some 7-8 years later), which coincidentally fell right around finals...I was beyond stressed, with it being my freshman year and unsure how to go about finals. It took me two days to have all dozen cupcakes gone.
During my first semester of grad school, my PI (basically research-code for my boss) kept a constant supply of candy or chocolates in her office. As one can imagine, grad school had its stresses. I was always in her office trying to figure out what to do with my life, how to do research, why my experiment was failing, what to put or not put in my thesis proposal and defense, the list really just goes on and on. Every time I was around that jar of candy...and every time that jar of candy won.
It was miserable. I felt completely helpless and at the control of a few sugary treats.
In fact, it was one of the most liberating feelings to feel like I no longer had to cling to the chocolate the second I had a bad day.
This blog post is going to teach you just how to control your stress eating habits so you can finally take control back. These are the tools that I used personally to finally end my stress-eating habits and then used later with many of my clients.
What is stress eating?
Stress eating is essentially your coping response, or mechanism, to something you deem stressful. The stress could be acute, meaning it’s a single triggering event (like losing a job, a fight, failed a test), or chronic, meaning it’s stress that has built up over time (like hating your job, in a poor relationship, not having good friends/support system, inability to lose weight).
This stress could come from
To learn more about the science behind stress, why it happens, what it is, plus general responses to stress, along with general stress management tips, check out a most recent blog post I wrote.
But today we’re talking specifically about the response to stress that results in eating.
Typically, when a stressor is felt, cortisol rises. As you learned previously from the Guide to Stress, this allows for sympathetic nervous system activity so you can respond to that stress.
Unfortunately, elevated cortisol contributes to increased hunger and cravings...already beginning the process towards eating foods in response to stress.
Additionally, one of the typical occurrences during a stress response is a “glycogen dump”.
Between the cortisol increase and the glycogen dump, your body is pretty depleted...so it sends out the hormones necessary to increase hunger and “refuel” up. Unfortunately, your body is sending mixed signals. It feels as if it just expended a TON of energy (from the stress-responding glycogen dump)...but the reality is that you were sitting at work or in your car. MAYBE you were standing up having a fight with your mom. The point is...you weren’t fighting a bear and actually using the fuel. Think of it like a car’s gas tank cut and emptied fully. The car didn’t use the gas...it just got rid of it. Same concept here.
Most behavioral stress response is also a learned behavior. We see how others respond and we adjust to match. Maybe you saw your mom respond to stress by eating a bag of chips or grabbing a handful of M&Ms. If you’ve watched any TV at all, you’ve seen this. The main character goes through a break up and is consoled with a pint—or gallon—of ice cream.
We follow suit...
But often times this starts as kids...when we don’t care about food and eating clean and losing weight, yada yada yada. So we don’t know that we’re instilling habits that will be tough to break.
By the time we’re in adulthood, we’ve got a full-blown network in place to respond to stressful situations. It’s more than just a general response to a stress. It goes all way down to how your brain functions as well. The limbic system in your brain is the network involved in addiction and reward. When we have a positive reaction to something, the limbic system is activated and essentially releases the signals that we feel as “fulfilling” or “rewarding”, which becomes a positive feedback loop meaning it supports further actions that gets the same feeling. This is the basis of addiction. You take a drug or drink alcohol and get a high that feels very good. Maybe it calms you down, boosts your mood, removes your stresses, gives you energy, etc. Your limbic system recognizes this feeling and associates drugs or alcohol for that feeling again. So now, not only will it simply provide you with the happy, go lucky feelings, but it will start encouraging your behavior that leads to the feel-good response.
That’s why some people say they have a food addiction, like a sugar addiction or chocolate addiction, and why some people would say stress-eating is an extenuation of addicting-behavior.
It’s also why when you sense stress, you don’t go for the grilled chicken salad and instead opt for the sugary treat or salty snack that is going to further stimulate your limbic, reward system. You essentially get more of a reward...and who doesn’t want that?
Why is it important to remove stress eating?
For starters...no one enjoys stress eating.
Yes, we may like the food we’re eating when we’re stressed, but no one enjoys the why behind it or the feeling of having zero to no control. Most want to enjoy the food and have total control over when to eat and when to stop. Often times, stress eating causes you to eat past your form of comfort, so not only are you unhappy, but you’re almost physically ill...yet mentally you’re feeling that food high coming from your limbic system. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?
It also is a really quick way to stall or completely hinder all forms of progress. If you are in a deficit and experience a stress and binge on whatever treat is around, you’re no longer in that deficit and no longer going to reap any benefit of weight loss. Now you could, if the stress-eating occurrences are far and few between, still see results, but it is going to take time. In the case of diets and deficits, we want to minimize the time we’re in the cut because of the tendency to see a slow down of your metabolism, hormone health, sleep, energy, recovery, etc.
Stress-eating actions aren’t good for your health, both mental and physical. The mental side effect is just the constant state of stress. Constantly being in a state of stress will dampen your drive and motivation...decreasing your willpower, leading to extra treats. Most people will then view themselves as failures...which isn’t a help at all.
Because you’re opting for the sugary or salty treats, we’re getting more insulin spikes and your pancreas is having to work harder. This may eventually decrease your insulin sensitivity and could lead to a pre-diabetic or diabetic state (although in more extreme situations). This in turn will worsen sleep, energy, and recovery. It may lead to excess bloat or weight gain and will make future endeavors to lose weight.
So it’s imperative to get stress-eating under control so you can take back your mental state and protect your physical health.
How to remove stress eating
There are a number of strategies to finally put stress eating to bed. They’re probably very similar to many strategies I’ve shared before with ending cravings and how to manage general stress.
You probably have tried the most common solution: restriction and removal...but that isn’t going to work long-term. There will come a point to limiting your access to the foods you find rewarding or that you gravitate to...but that is later in the process. Simply removing these foods means your removing some of your favorite foods...and that just isn’t sustainable long term. I LOVE chocolate and used to binge on it.
#1. What is your stress trigger?
What is causing you stress? Is it work, family, people, friends? Figure out what is the precursor to stress eating. The most common triggers are going to be family and work. It’s not uncommon for people to go home for the holidays feeling totally under control, then losing all sense of progress or willpower the second a family member questions their job...or how I’ve been hearing from many women lately, disgust over their new dieting habits or newfound muscle and happiness. When you identify what is causing you the most stress, you can then develop practices to address that one stress without immediately resorting to foods.
#2. What is your stress response?
How you respond to stress is completely dependent on you and what you find rewarding. Your first task is figuring out how you respond to stress. What are the foods you gravitate to?
Gain the awareness first, then you can start making the changes needed.
#3. EAT MORE
Like with cravings, the more you eat during the day, the less likely you’re going to be needing more food. Your body sends out signals when it is hungry or under-fueled. Add that will stress and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Plan out meals frequently, 4-5x/day, evenly spaced every 3-4 hours. Eat between 2000-2500 calories/day...NOT 1500 or less. Eat a balanced meal of protein, carbs, veggies, and healthy fats. Fueling yourself properly is often enough to solve all your problems.
#4. Indulge weekly.
The more you restrict, the harder it’s going to be...
Solution??? Quit restricting.
I’ve shared the story of a previous client, Christina, who was at her wits end with binges and cravings. She was miserable. If she felt stress or a craving come on, she would find herself driving to the store to buy a full bag of chocolate to eat in one sitting. Even worse, she was only 20 years old...so she had a loooonnnng life ahead of her if she didn’t get things sorted soon.
Now, she was eating well below 1000 calories/day, so that was our very first step...generally increasing foods.
But that only did so much. She still had stress-eating tendencies and cravings.
So, I mandated that she purposely binge 1-2x/week. Once was a non-negotiable, but I threw in the second as a just in case the situation arose. She was confused why I would encourage a behavior that was causing her stress and something I wanted to remove, but she trusted the process and did it.
Like clockwork, within 4 weeks, she sent me a message asking if she could stop because the binges were miserable and no longer felt the need to have them. I made her continue for one more week, then removed them. That was well over a year ago and she’s never had a binge since, unless she chose to.
How did this work? I removed the stigma behind the binge or the stress eating behavior...it became a weekly or everyday occurrence and her brain (and limbic system) could no longer associate “stress” with that food. In fact, I made her near miserable by encouraging the binges that by the time she was free of them, she no longer had that desire.
I’m not saying to binge every single day...but start having those foods you eat when stressed more frequently, not even factored into your macros...just eat them to eat them. What this will do is remove the association between stress and sugary/salty treats...so your brain won’t encourage those foods when you sense stress.
This is by far my favorite step because this is where the liberation happens.
#5. Develop a support system.
Be around people that understand, support, and even practice what you’re doing.
People can suck and can tear down your progress because they don’t understand and don’t want a change in the status quo.
If someone shames you for making healthy options or for lifting or anything, recognize that as a red flag and find new people.
If stress is completely taking over your life and there’s nothing you feel that you can do, see a therapist. These tools are very effective but if there is more to the problem or something you feel out of control, seek a professional.
#6. Change your stress-response.
When you sense stress, instead of immediately going for the food, practice stress relieving activities.
Go for a walk. Get in the sun. Take 5-10 deep breaths and close your eyes. Put on your favorite song and dance. If I’m having a stressful day, it’s not unheard of me to put on either The Middle (if you know, you know) or ABBA in the car and just jam away. By the time I get to where I’m going, all my stresses are completely gone. Go out on a date night or with friends.
Start changing the association between stress and food...associate stress with one of these behaviors above and you’ll no longer run towards the pantry.
#7. Remove from immediate vicinity.
If all else fails, you may not want to have it so readily accessible. This doesn’t mean you avoid forever, but that you just don’t encourage it 24/7. Use times when you are out to indulge in it. Make it inconvenient but still available on occasion.
For me, this is ice cream. I LOVE it...and will eat it, with or without stress. I know it’ll disrupt my routine and just bring more stress, so I never keep it in my apartment. I will instead save ice cream for when I go home to my parent’s house or out with my girlfriends or when having a girls’ movie night.
Nothing needs to be fully removed 100% of the time...unless you just don’t like it 😉
Stress-eating doesn’t have to take over your life. It’s not going to be fixed overnight, but you can start making the little changes needed to change how you respond to stressful situations. It’s work, believe me, but it’s beyond worth it.
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