There are many theories as to the causes of stress eating and it is increasing prevalent in North American societies in all genders and backgrounds (it does not discriminate and neither should you). For many, it is not (yet) as much of an issue, but for others, it teeters them over the edge in terms of excess visceral fat and abdominal obesity and other cardiometabolic health conditions. In fact, if not managed, and I will elaborate on proposed ways to ‘manage’ it, there are a myriad of long term health issues than can arise. Do understand, that with all things I post out or say or…I am not a clinician so do seek out necessary help if you have a medical diagnosis or otherwise. I have a few clients who struggle a lot with stress eating so I wanted to put out a quick bite on some stress eating theories to help you potentially understand you.
I have said it before and I will say it again, excessive stress (and inflammation) will be the death of us before eating foods with gluten that are not processed and come from organic fairy-land while stressing about the perfect rep scheme, location, workout gadget or tool and blah blah blah. There are exceptions, other contexts I have and will say otherwise, to this statement and I do feel there are “perfects” and how things should be, but that’s unfortunately not the world we live in. Just doing something is better than stressing out about doing the perfect thing. I am saying this because for many, from my research and my experience with others, the mentality of having to follow the “perfects” and not being able to, often sends people in a downward spiral of “what’s the point”, ” I am such a failure”, ” insert negative self-talk here” that makes them feel worse and console with food.
For those of you who feel out of control with your eating on a day-to-day basis, I want you to be kinder to yourself if you fall under one category, or I want you to smarten up if you fall into another. Some respond better to tough love while others respond better with a more empathetic and patient approach. Knowing which you fall into will make a world of difference in how you interpret and hopefully use what I am about to write.
I am not going to go into an in-depth scientific explanation of the theories on stress eating here as my blog is not meant for that type of audience but it is meant for you, the person just trying to be a better version of yourself and to live a fulfilling and longer life. You can find some sources to further look into things at the end as I am writing this mostly from my own head from experiences, learnings etc. 🙂
On to the proposed theories…
- As I mentioned above, one of the theories on stress eating is the one that comes from not being able to follow or live the “perfect” diet. Trying to fit this in is often unrealistic for many. These people than stress about not being able to do it and that leads to giving up, feeling like a failure and figuring, “what’s the point” so they either go on a food bender or just go back to 24-7-365 poor food choices. Guess what? That many is actually more like a most, even the ones that claim they do. Unless of course, it is their J-O-B, are a competitive athlete or have a team of people. Stress summons our survivalist self in that it makes you crave for fast energy to fight or take flight aka high sugar foods, while also wanting to hold on to energy conservation stuff like body fat.
- Numero deux is for those who reward-eat poor food choices for a week or day of hard work. This may actually be related to either a learned behaviour instilled from their youth from being rewarded with food for a job well done or doing something ‘good’.
- The hedonsim theory is multifaceted in that it can be a physiological or neurobiological desire to eat high fat/high sugar foods because of hormones, neurochemicals/transmitters that go out of whack from too much stress and the lack of sleep that often comes with this. Alongside that, your body may already be primed from before you were born (partly think microbiome/microbiota) to want these foods and couple that with our poor food and environmental quality these days and it makes it that much harder! It can also be related to number two’s learned behaviour of reward system eating.
- The desire-fulfillment theory can be another reason behind the stress-eating in that if you are trying to ‘diet’ while under a ton of stress, this added stress and the mindset of not being able to have such and such foods, will make you want them even more. Think of the forbidden fruit idea.
- The idea of food as a social utility is another theory that can be related to stress eating. Using food as your comfort instead of reaching out to others in times of stress is another common concept.
Some very simple ideas to help you manage:
- Cut back on your schedule and put your oxygen mask on first. You are of no use to anyone, including those you are or want to help, if you are physically and mentally unhealthy. There is always tomorrow, everything is not up to you and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
- Get the junk food out of your house. Out of sight, out of mind or just the fact that it is less easily accessible may help you just eat or even stress eat the healthier foods in your house.
- Stop and DEEP breathe for ten minutes.
- Write down what you are feeling before you go to stress eat
- Reward yourself with a new outfit, a movie, a new tech tool, something not related to food. Better yet, treat yourself to a night with your closest friends or family.
- Keep your hands and mind distracted by learning an instrument, doing some art, playing the music loud and singing while driving to keep you awake and alert instead of midless eating.
- Accept what you are feeling and get over it even if you stress eat. Tomorrow is another day.
- Talk to yourself and remind yourself of your goals.
- Know and understand that constantly feeding yourself foods lacking in nutrients is a punishment to yourself not the reward you think it is.
- Take up boxing, kickboxing or some other agressive sport to release your stress.
- On the opposite end, some need to take up yoga, tai chi or more mindful exercise.
- Have healthier alternates of your favourite stress foods to help reduce the negative effects of junk foods from your body.
- Drink some water, a decent amount even, to help fill you up that may make you not want to eat.
- Simply recognize the incidents surrounding your stress eating so you can either eliminate the trigger, or you can have a plan to better deal with it if and when it arises.
- Know that everything is not your problem, things are often not the end of the world, and your health and well-being matters!
With all of the theories, many even well beyond these, the important thing is to recognize if what you are doing is in line with all aspects of your health. Some people just need to smarten up, for most, it is not that easy. Keep trying to understand what may be behind what you are doing. Recognize and accept with the willingness to keep trying things to change, but do not, I repeat do not, beat yourself up (unless you are that type of personality who legit knows you respond well that way), or it will make you feel worse and excacerbate the issue. Sometimes it can be as simple as a basic lifestyle and/or behaviour change, others it can be something more complex related to your physiology/biology, other times it is just a lack of sincere desire to change at all. Often times, we just need to be around better people who are in line with us and our values, goals, beliefs to support necessay progressive and lasting changes. The point is, we are all different, we need different things, we are pretty darn complex, we need to stop stressing about EVERYTHING all of the time, we need to learn to chill, play, laugh and love ourselves more. For many, it also means learning to say no more often to things that are truly not serving you.
- Parekh, Parth J., Luis A. Balart, and David A. Johnson. “The Influence of the Gut Microbiome on Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome and Gastrointestinal Disease.”Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology, June 18, 2015. Accessed August 14, 2016. doi:10.1038/ctg.2015.16.
Adam, Tanja C., and Elissa S. Epel. “Stress, Eating and the Reward System.” Physiology and Behavior 91, no. 4 (July 2007): 449-58. Accessed August 3, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011.
Hall, Katherine S., Dr., Katherine D. Hoerster, and William S. Yancy, Jr. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Physical Activity, and Eating Behaviors.” Oxford Journals. October 13, 2014. Accessed August 3, 2016. http://epirev.oxfordjournals.org/content/37/1/103.full.
Staff, Mayo Clinic. “Weight Loss- Gain Control of Emotional Eating.” Mayo Clinic. October 3, 2015. Accessed August 14, 2016. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342.