Stress Eating: Why We Sometimes Eat More When We’re Stressed and What to Do About It.

Stress eating unhealthy foods
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Whether we are sitting down to have a nice dinner with family and friends for our birthday, having a bake sale to raise money for a local charity, or snacking on popcorn and hotdogs at our favorite sporting event, food is an integral part of so much of our lives and cultures.

In fact, according to a United States Department of Agriculture study, Americans spend an average of 67 minutes per day in primary eating–time spent where eating and drinking is the main activity–as well as an additional 23.5 minutes per day in secondary eating–time spent eating while also performing a primary activity such as working or watching television. This means we spend nearly 10% of our waking hours eating.

For many people, food provides a source of happiness, a way to enjoy time with loved ones, and an opportunity to relax and unwind from the day. For some people, stress eating can also become their go-to mechanism for managing stress, which can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors. Studies have shown that nearly thirty-eight percent of American adults engage in overeating or eating unhealthy foods in a given month as a way to manage stress, while almost twenty percent do so on a weekly basis.  

What is Stress Eating & Why Do We Do It?

When we eat, we aren’t always trying to fill our stomachs. Often, we are looking to fill an emotional void caused by boredom, sadness, or stress.

Food can serve as a coping mechanism for a variety of reasons. Many people associate food with the comfort and safety of home and family. Sweets or other unhealthy foods can be used as a ‘reward’ at the end of a stressful day. We can also use food as a short escape from the constant stress we face day after day.

But why do we turn to food in our moments of need? Why is a sugary donut or a cheesy pizza so good at making us forget about our stress for a brief moment?

Why is food so good at making us feel less stressed?:

  • Our Body Thinks It Needs Fuel – When we are under stress for prolonged periods, our bodies fill with the hormone cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol, which is a critical component of the fight-or-flight response, can increase cravings for foods high in sugar, salt, and fat – looking for fast-acting sources of fuel for our body.
  • Sugar is a Fantastic Reward (Even Though It Isn’t) – When we eat sugar, our brain reacts to these sweet molecules with an increase in dopamine–one of the main chemicals responsible for feeling happy. Our bodies see this temporary euphoria and take note, “Sugar makes me happy,” though it quite often forgets to remind itself of the awful crash that comes a short while later.
  • Comfort Foods Remind Us of Happy Times – For many loving parents and grandparents, one of the easiest ways to show love for a child or grandchild is to give them food. This could be a stack of pancakes on a lazy weekend morning, a freshly baked cherry pie when they get home from school, or even something as simple as a lollipop as a sweet little surprise. Remembering how good these doting caretakers made us feel, many of us look to food as a simple way to return to a happier time when we are feeling stressed.

Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with rewarding ourselves with a chocolate chip cookie after a long day at school or work. Food itself is not the problem. After all, we wouldn’t make it very far if we simply said, “No more eating, period!” However, we can run into some seriously damaging health-related issues if we let our stress take over and let our reward cycle get out of sync.

Replacing One Bad Habit with Another

Quiting Cigarettes Can Lead To Stress Eating
Photo by Basil MK

As we all know, bad habits can become incredibly difficult to break once we get locked into the cycle. And even when we are able to get over a bad habit, it isn’t always the end of the road.

Many people who give up smoking, for example, end up gaining extra weight because they replace the stress-reducing habit of smoking cigarettes for another bad habit: stress eating.

But this isn’t all bad news. If we can trade one bad habit for another, it means we can also replace one bad habit with a better one if we take the time to understand our triggers and the signals our bodies are sending to us.

Stress Eating and the Reward Cycle

Our brains are incredibly complex systems that control every aspect of our physical and mental selves. But our minds also have many shortcuts to help ‘automate’ mundane or repetitive tasks, which is why, for example, you don’t have to think about where to put your foot every single time you take a step.

One of these shortcuts controls how we respond to familiar situations, through a reward cycle which psychologist B.F. Skinner called Operant Conditioning. Through operant conditioning, our brains learn to associate certain behaviors with rewards and punishments based on the outcome or the stimuli which follow said behavior.

Behaviors that are followed immediately with a desirable stimulus, or which remove an undesired stimulus, tend to be repeated more often. In contrast, actions followed by an undesirable stimulus, or which remove a desired stimulus, tend to be repeated less frequently.  

It is important to understand, however, that the closer in time to the behavior and the more noticeable the outcome is, the more influential the result will be on whether the action will be repeated. So, for example, if we were to push a button and immediately receive a $100 bill, but we would lose $10 every month for one year, we would most likely push the button quite a lot before we realize the negative consequences of our action.

Just like in our example, where we would all likely mash the button hundreds of times before the negative consequences become apparent, when we use food as a coping mechanism for stress, we don’t see the adverse side effects until months or even years later.

For most people, when we are younger – and our metabolisms still at peak efficiency – we can quickly burn off the extra calories from eating a pint of ice cream when we feel down, or snacking on potato chips when we are stressed. We feel the stress melting away as our brains flood with energy and dopamine. We learn to associate food with feeling more energetic, less stressed, and happier. We begin to see food as a fantastic solution for coping with stress.

What we don’t notice until much later, after the habit of eating to reduce stress is already ingrained into our daily lives, is all the bad stuff this unhealthy habit is doing to our body. As we get older and our metabolism begins to slow down, the extra food begins to add up. Our cholesterol levels become unhealthy, we gain excess fat, and we can start to experience a number of adverse outcomes such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, which only serve to increase our stress even further. The extra stress can cause us to enter into a vicious cycle of stress eating–unless we can learn to deal with our stress more healthily.

Replacing One Bad Habit with a Better Habit

The key to eliminating bad habits is to build better ones in their place. To do this, we must take control of the reward cycle and make it work for us.

But how, exactly, do we do this?

  • Identify Your Personal Cues & Triggers – Not everyone is going to have the same triggers that cause them to want to eat as a way of getting rid of stress. Maybe for you, it could be sitting in a meeting at work, for someone else it might be after getting into a fight with a loved one. Everyone has different things that cause them to look to food as a way to feel better; understanding yours is the first step to building better habits.
  • Understand Your Coping Mechanisms & Explore Replacements – Is eating the only thing you do when you are stressed? Maybe in some instances you eat, and in others you play video games or try to escape into a good book. Think of all of the ways you deal with stress and see if you have healthier alternatives that you can cultivate. It could even be something as simple as finding healthier foods such as nuts or fruit rather than unhealthy chips and sodas.
  • Build an Environment Which Promotes Better Habits – Often, our minds gravitate towards the simplest, most available solution, especially when we are stressed or tired. If we continuously have junk food around us, it is incredibly easy to fall back into the habit of eating unhealthy things when we are stressed. Start by buying healthier alternatives. Tell the people around you that you are working on building better habits and let them help you stay on track. The easiest way to resist temptation is to keep it away from you and to create a support network of people who can help..
  • Plan for Potential Setbacks – Long night at the office for a big project? Holiday with the family just around the corner? It isn’t always possible to stay away from temptation or unexpected stress, but it is possible to plan for how you can deal with these situations when they arise.
  • Remember that Change is a Long-Term Project – You aren’t going to change overnight. You will likely have a few stumbles. But if you stick to it, you are sure to have plenty of successes as well. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip up and have a bad day. Just take it one step at a time and always keep moving in the right direction.

What are some healthy habits that we can use to replace stress eating?

Stress Eating: Why We Sometimes Eat More When We're Stressed and What to Do About It.
Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels
  • Exercise – One of the simplest things we can do is to do some sort of physical activity whenever we notice that our stress is rising and we are at risk of stress eating. This doesn’t mean we have to run a 5k every time we have a tough meeting at work or a bad day at home. Something as small as taking a stroll around the office, doing some pushups, or even taking the dog for a walk can be enough for us to get past the initial cravings.
  • Meditation & Mindfulness – The relaxation techniques involved in practicing meditation can be a great way to get rid of some of the stress that triggers us to overeat or look to junk food when stressed.
  • Talk with a friend or loved one – Sometimes having someone to vent to is a great way to relieve stress. If you have a close friend or colleague that you can take stress breaks with, it can help you avoid temptation to eat unhealthy foods, reduce your stress, and improve your relationship with that person, all promoting a healthy reward cycle.