Stress Eating: Why Do I Overeat and How to stop?
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Stress is responsible for a lot of health problems, to say the least. It’s associated with increased risk for heart disease, stroke, as well as other issues like insomnia. You can check out how stress affects each of our systems in our body in my blog What are the effects of stress on the body? Given all the health issues associated with stress, it can be very easy to overlook one of the most damaging effects of stress, which is encouraging you to overeat. Stress eating can be shown by having an immediate urgent need for a tub of ice cream or it can be subtle like mindless eating a whole bag of chips sitting in front of the television.
Then the act of overeating leads to many of the health issues described above, which is a vicious cycle that can become dangerous. But, why exactly does being stressed out lead to you overeat? It’s a good question, but no one answer for everyone. Let’s explore the possible reasons…
1.) Stress Reduces Your Willpower
A successful “diet” relies mostly on having tremendous willpower. You have to be able to stop yourself from indulging when you want to eat seconds at dinner. Or stop yourself from fantasizing about eating a big piece of cake.
One of the major effects of stress is that it completely saps your willpower and energy. Anyone who has ever had to deal with stress can tell you that it completely erases all your energy. When you’re stressed out, the chances are good that watching what you eat is the last thing on your mind. When you aren’t watching what you eat, it’s a lot easier to say to yourself “I’ll just have one more slice”. Or something like this “I’ll just have one more plate.”
2.) Overeating Makes You Feel Good
Stress makes you feel bad (and that’s understating it quite a bit). When you’re seriously stressed out, most things that would typically bring a person joy or pleasure just seem not to. Because of the negative feelings brought on by excessive stress, people begin to seek out ways to make themselves feel better. In some people, this can result in destructive use of drugs and/or alcohol. In many others, it results in overeating.
Scientists have long known that eating excessive amounts of food gives you good feelings. Your body also knows this, which is why you get an urge to overeat when you’re stressed out. The overeating gives your body some much needed good feelings.
So, if you’re trying to avoid overeating, then you need to invest in some seriously good stress management techniques (I got some for you further down). Stress eating will ruin your diet and you need to take steps to counteract it.
3.) Hormones Can Cause Stress Eating
The brain automatically sends a stronger signal to the brain that tells us to eat something when our bodies are stressed or tired. That is our body needing food to fuel energy.
What’s interesting is that, in the short-term, a bout of stress can actually shut-down your appetite. When you first begin to experience stress, your body will have your nervous system send a message to the adrenal glands, which tells the kidneys to pump out adrenaline.
This adrenaline then triggers your “fight or flight” response, and this revved-up psychological state of survival that dates back to our ancient ancestors will temporarily put your desire to eat on hold. That’s why food is usually the last thing someone wants when they have butterflies in their stomach before a performance or when they are anxiously awaiting some sort of big news.
However, if the stress continues, the body goes into overdrive in the other direction. That’s when the hormone cortisol is released, which instantly increases your appetite. It can also increase your motivation in general, especially your motivation to eat.
When your stress ends, the cortisol levels will fall again, but it can happen that stress levels get stuck “on” in your body and your cortisol levels remain elevated. They may need some kind of outside tactics to balance it back again. This could come in the form of medication, but I always prefer trying a more holistic approach first.
One Finnish study featuring more than 5,000 men and women linked obesity to stress-related eating in women, but not in men. However, men are still at risk for the potential of stress eating even though it is much more prevalent in women.
There are also two other “hunger” hormones that may contribute to stress eating as well and you can read about them in my blog posts here: Leptin How to Control this Hunger Hormone and Ghrelin How to Control this Hunger Hormone?
5 Ways to Reduce Stress
Managing stress is often the best way to get to the root of your overeating problem. Here are five techniques to help you do it.
#1 Create A Schedule
Being able to manage your time better, plan ahead, and know what’s coming are all important to managing and reducing your stress. Creating a schedule with a planner and sticking to it, then reviewing it periodically, is the simple secret to feeling like you have control over your days again. More control equals less stress eating.
You can use whatever planner works for you. There are premade planners like my favorite the Happy Planner on Amazon. You can also get a digital planner you print or write in online. (I may be coming out with a new one very soon to share!) You could also use the calendar on your phone like Google Calendar ICalendar.
#2 Learn To Say No
Do you have a lot on your plate? Learning to say no to new projects is important to prevent overwhelm and stress. When you stretch yourself too thin for too long, you’re just going to end up letting people down at the last minute or hurting yourself when you are stress eating. Instead of feeling pressured to take on things that you can’t handle, look at your schedule and decide if you can do it or not–and when.
#3 Boost Your Productivity
When it comes time to work, you can lower your stress by using any number of productivity-boosting tactics. The Pomodoro method, for instance, uses a timer to help you break a long list of to-dos up into short 25-minute work increments. Each bout is separated by a brief 5-minute break, and then you get one longer break to enjoy after you’ve worked for a few sessions.
I tend to do 10-minute breaks at the end of every 50 minutes since I break my work into one-hour time blocks. If you try one of these methods out let me know in the comments how it went for you.
#4 Practice Breathing
It may take some time to officially mark things as complete in your calendar. Until then you can learn to breathe. No, I don’t mean you have to sit cross-legged on the floor and chant mantras. Learning how to mindfully breathe can help you get through many situations without losing your cool. You can do this most anywhere and only takes a few minutes to get yourself relaxed. But it may take a little practice.
The point is to improve your mindfulness and keep you centered and focused in the moment when it matters. I use an app on my phone called Calm for this. You can also see if this helps with the act of stress eating. Before you reach for the food, try concentrating on your breathing for 5 minutes.
#5 Get Help
Are you overworked? Ha! What mom isn’t right? But, burning the candle at both ends won’t get you very far for too long. And it will only get you sleepwalking to the fridge at night. You don’t have to deal with stress alone. Think about the resources you have to lighten your load and get assistance. This can be asking for a deadline extension or asking mom to watch the kids for a night.
Sometimes no matter what we do stress just can’t be avoided or reduced. If this is the case you should look into techniques to reduce the effects of stress on your body. In turn, the stress eating habits associated with that stress should come to a halt. I have a Free 101 Stress-Busting Techniques Guide you can grab to help you with that.
Not sure that stress is a factor for you? Check out my blog 7 Chronic Stress Symptoms You Need to Take Action on Now.