(The seventh of 10 blogs on behaviors that affect eating)
83% of American workers say they feel stressed out by their jobs.
An ABC report found that the stress levels of working mothers could reach the levels of soldiers going into battle.
Stress is a major health issue in America and one of the consequences is the way stress impacts our eating patterns, obesity and our well-being.
Stress doesn’t just happen because of a crisis. It happens because of the everyday frustration, confusion, tension and uncertainty that comes from living in a fast-paced, fast-changing world.
Stress causes an emotional reaction and a physical response that contributes to unhealthy eating. No one is immune, so we need to learn to manage the impact that results in unhealthy eating.
A Primer on the Stress Response and Chronic Stress
When you experience sudden danger, your brain instantly signals your body to turn out a hormone called cortisol. It, in turn, relays the message throughout the body to mobilize you for a life-saving response. Your heart races, you become highly attentive and alert, even vigilant. Blood vessels constrict and divert the flow of blood from leisurely processes such as digestion to fast-acting muscles. Metabolism shifts too, and energy is made rapidly available to your muscles, readying them for action.
But such emergencies don’t last forever. The stress response system has a built-in capacity to turn itself off. But the shut-off mechanism doesn’t always work, especially these days when the cause of stress is more psychological than an external threat that causes a “fight or flight” response.
Chronic stress is another story completely. The system does not turn off. As the situations that give rise to stress endure, it keeps ramping up production of cortisol. It is like an inner Code Red that leads to anxiety, vigilance, and hyper-alertness. Depression can also be one consequence of chronic stress.
Stress and Eating. It is well established that people under stress seek out rich, high-calorie foods that are often loaded with sugar. Since long-term anxiety would deplete your body of its energy reserves, the body craves fat and sugar rich food to build them back up.
The problem is that when the stress hormone cortisol kicks in, it directs the excess calories to the abdomen where they get deposited as fat. Great if you need quick access to energy but a serious problem if the energy storing mechanism stays in gear accumulating more abdominal fat – obesity.
The attraction to high-calorie foods might temporarily feel good since it reduces the symptoms of depression and the anxiety that can accompany stress. The problem is two-fold. We don’t use the accumulating energy (abdominal fat). Secondly, indulging in high-calorie foods like a donut often leads to binge eating. It is like unconsciously thinking, “I’ve already messed up so I might as well keep eating.
But it is not just chronic stress. A number of studies have found that normally healthy people change their eating patterns when hit with a stressful incident.
In one study people were told they were taking part in a taste test for a new kind of M&M’s candy. They were told that one bowl of M&M’s was the normal high-calorie version and the other was a new low-calorie product. There was no difference in the candies. Before doing the taste test they were shown posters with either neutral messages or sentences about struggle and adversity.
Those who saw the struggle and adversity posters ate about 70% more of the high-calorie M&M’s.
A University of Michigan study showed that by artificially raising the stress hormone cortisol, healthy, non-stressed adults ate more snack foods.
Everyday Ways to keep stress from destroying healthy eating
Keep Healthy Snacks Handy. If you are a stress eater you usually know it. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends keeping the following foods handy and substituting them for high-sugar and high-calorie foods that you crave.
Complex Carbohydrates. All carbohydrates help the brain produce more serotonin that makes you feel better. More complex carbs digest more slowly and keep blood sugar levels stable. Hit the whole grain products, beans and lentils.
Raw Veggies. Eating crunchy raw veggies like celery, radishes and carrots is a great stress reducer because the act of crunching releases tension in the jaw without adding many calories.
The Right Kind of Fat. Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids help control unhealthy surges in stress hormones – foods like walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds, pine nuts, wild tuna, salmon, mussels. They are also great for maintaining brain health.
Vitamin C. Foods high in vitamin C both reduce stress hormone levels and boost the immune system, which can be impacted by stress. (See 7 Foods With More Vitamin C Than An Orange)
Combat Stress-Eating Habits Head-on
Dr. Susan Albers of the Cleveland Clinic offer Tips to Stop Emotional Eating.
First, she outlines the 4 telltale signs of emotional eating. Her tips for stopping emotional eating are:
Be Aware – much of emotional eating is unconscious so the first steps is to become aware of when and how frequently you engage in this behavior and what triggers it. Write it down.
Replace – As an alternative to having healthy snacks on hand, she suggest three no-calorie activities to give you a quick pick-me up to reduce the stress and take your mind off food:
- • Sip Black Tea – studies show that black tea drinker recover more quickly to stressful situation as seen in a quicker reduction in cortisol levels
- • Self-Massage – take your shoes off and rub your feet over a tennis ball until they feel relaxed. Research shows this slows your heart rate and reduces cortisol levels.
- • Breathing Exercises – Instead of mindless emotional eating. Close your eyes and slowly breath in an out. Count to 10 during each inhale and each exhale.
Practice – Try the replacement techniques in step two when you are not stressed. Get them down pat before you really need them.
Engage in Activities That Elevate Positive Emotions
Research by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson demonstrates that when positive emotions are elicited they can quickly over-ride the negative ones that accompany stress. These antidotes can be simple activities like smiling, hugging a loved one, petting your dog, a short walk in nature or even buying yourself some flowers.(more on this topic)
Develop and Practice Mindful Meditation
There is now a sizeable amount of research demonstrating that mindful meditation reduces anxiety and stress.
Mindful mediation comes in many forms. I recommend Kristan Kiryla because it is straightforward and can be done in 12 minutes a day. Anxiety or stress reduction happen in a matter of a few weeks. You can download the guide instructions from the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.