It turns out that “emotional eating,” or “stress eating” is a very real phenomenon.
“The problem that we’re trying to address is that the success rates for long-term weight loss are not (good) … Stress eating may be one reason why people don’t do as well in behavioral weight loss groups, because (they) don’t address stress eating or any of its contributing factors.” ~ Temple University
(A quick note: the contents of this article do not pertain to medically-recognized eating disorders – a potentially severe health condition. If you feel that you may fall into this category, please seek professional help immediately!)
The hormones released during periods of stress, combined with the mental and biological effects of eating high-fat, sugary “comfort foods,” causes many of us to overindulge.
Strangely enough, feelings of hunger are suppressed by the stress response in the short-term. Hormones released by brain and kidneys create an excited physiological state that often results in delayed eating. The same cannot be said of chronic stress, however.
During prolonged periods of stress, the body churns out the stress hormone cortisol, which can create intense feelings of hunger. If the body is unable to “switch off” the stress response, as is the case with chronic stress, then cortisol continues to be produced.
Numerous studies have shown that emotional or physical distress increases the consumption of foods high in sugar, fat, or both. Researchers attribute this response to the body’s overproduction of cortisol, insulin, and ghrelin – another “hunger hormone.”
“Comfort” foods really do create feelings of comfort.
During and shortly after the consumption of fat- and sugar-laden foods, the part of the brain associated with stress is restrained. In other words, these foods really are “comfort” foods in that they do counteract the brain’s stress response – something that contributes to a habit of overeating.
Several studies demonstrate the link between repeated intake of comfort foods, elevated stress levels, and obesity. Additional research shows that individuals who engage in this cycle are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and stroke.
Additionally, stress eating can undermine weight loss. Per the Mayo Clinic:
“Stress eating can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. It often leads to eating too much, especially of high-calorie sweet and fatty foods. The good news is that if you’re prone to stress eating, you can take steps to regain control of your eating habits and get back on track with your weight loss goals.”
It’s worth keeping the nasty effects of “comfort” foods in mind going forward.
Stress eating study
It’s apparent by now that negative emotions encourage stress eating. Understanding this is the first step; the second is being able to identify the triggers of stress eating.
A 2010 study published in the journal Eating Disorders points to certain emotions and moods that most often precede stress eating. The rationale given for the study is as follows:
“Obesity prevention is a number one public health research priority. It is clear that stress eating may play a significant role in the (development) of obesity … it is necessary to study potential determinants of behavior leading to weight gain (to) identify methods of prevention … stress eating poses a good point of intervention because it appears to be a (changeable) risk factor.”
The researchers anticipated that all negative emotional and mood states are associated with stress eating and that females are more likely to eat emotionally than males.
Here’s some background on the research:
– Total of 666 participants, of which 74 percent were females.
– Data were gathered via a paper-and-pencil survey.
– Stress eating was measured using a 13-item, 5-point Likert scale, in which participants reported how often they engaged in said behaviors, from “never” to “very often.”
After analyzing the data, researchers found the following triggers to be strongly related to stress eating behaviors:
1. Perceived Stress
Perceived stress is defined as “the uncontrollability and unpredictability of one’s life, how often one has to deal with irritating hassles, how much change is occurring in one’s life, and confidence in one’s ability to deal with problems or difficulties.”
Some of the items included on the survey: “Had to keep secrets from my friends or parents,” “Have been worried about my social life,” and “I just have too much work to do.”
Worries, as measured in the survey, are similar to those of anxiety and stress. Researchers inquired as to how frequently the person had worried about things such as self-image, relationships, and performance.
3. Tension and anxiety
The study determined a correlation between anxiety, tension, and stress eating. It is unclear as to why the authors included tension along with anxiety, though one can reasonably assume they did so because anxiety often evokes the feeling of tension, and vice-versa.
4. Confused mood
Stress eating stemming from confused mood is more likely to occur in males than females, according to researchers. A more “diffuse” state of mind, confused mood involves an overall lack of clarity rather than a distinctly reactive psychological episode.
How to stop stress eating
Fundamentally, the act of stress eating hinges on (a) an individual’s sense of self-control, and (b) identifying psychological states that induce stress eating.
The Mayo Clinic provides the following tips for changing emotional eating habits:
– Keep a food diary: Jot down what, when, and how much you eat; along with your mood. Over time, you may see a pattern which can then be changed.
– Lower your stress levels: Try managing stress with something like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
– Remove temptations: The best advice here is to keep comfort foods out of your cupboards. Don’t go shopping while hungry either.
– Snack healthy: If the feeling that you must eat arises, choose a low-fat, low-calorie food like fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip or unbuttered popcorn.
– If necessary, seek help: Eating disorders can be a severe medical condition, particularly if caused by a mental health condition. Often, such a case can not be resolved using self-help methods.
A mental health disorder is not your fault. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help!