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How to Manage Stress Eating

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Managing stress is one of Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s 8 Steps to Get Cooperized.™ However practicing unhealthy coping activities can cause long-term harm rather than help to relieve our stress. Many of these behaviors become so automatic we don’t even realize we are doing them. They can even become dangerous to our physical and mental health if stress becomes long-term or chronic.

The Effects of Stress on the Body
When we are stressed, our bodies exhibit physiological responses such as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shallow rapid breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • High emotions
  • Spiked blood glucose
  • Slowed digestion
  • Blunted immune response and reproduction

The Effects of Stress on the Brain
In addition, stress affects our mood as well as its fear and motivation responses, redirecting our blood, oxygen and energy resources to the muscles putting us in flight or fight mode to avoid the stressor. When this occurs, we are motivated to look for actions to help calm us down and return to a non-stressed state.

Food and Your Mood
We often turn to foods that are highly processed and high in fat, sugar and salt to manage stress. These foods can provide the same brain response as alcohol and hard drugs, which increase dopamine responses in the brain and result in a pleasurable feeling. Examples of these foods include:

  • French fries
  • Potato chips
  • Chocolate
  • Baked goods

Commonly referred to as “stress eating,” this may explain why we crave chips, candy and cookies when we are stressed rather than fruits and vegetables. Eating these types of foods in excess in attempt to manage stress can cause weight gain and even obesity, which can progress to other serious health issues such as diabetes.

Recent research has shown links between certain foods and our state of mind. A Western-style diet, high in processed and refined foods, has been associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety. Diets high in nutrient-dense foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains, as well as foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon and flax seeds, have been proven to be associated with decreased risk of anxiety and depression.

Tips to Minimize Stress Eating

1. Eat early and eat often.

Fueling your body regularly can help avoid excessive hunger. It is more difficult to make healthy food choices when we are hungry AND stressed. Eating breakfast and an afternoon snack can be especially helpful.

2. Plan ahead.

Planning your meals and snacks for the day can set you up for success so you are not tempted to hit the drive-thru or order takeout.

3. Track your food intake.

Sometimes being aware of what and when you are stress eating can help you pinpoint problem times or situations that trigger it. Tracking can also be helpful to identify your stress level while eating.

4. Practice mindful eating.

Try to avoid all distractions while eating so you can focus on the enjoyment of the food. Avoid eating at your desk at work, in front of the TV, while driving or while on devices such as your computer, phone or tablet.

5. Make a list.

Compile a list of activities that can help you relax besides eating, such as going for a walk, calling a friend, practicing deep breathing, prayer and meditation or listening to music.

6. Avoid easy access to tempting “stress foods.”

If chocolate chip cookies are your stress food of choice, leave them off the grocery list and at the store.

7. Avoid excess caffeine.

Excessive caffeine intake can worsen the physical symptoms of stress by causing:

  • Restlessness
  • Jitters
  • Shakiness
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal dysfunctions
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lack of concentration

8. Avoid alcohol.

Alcohol lowers our inhibitions and impairs judgement, which may make it easier to indulge in stress eating.

9. Unplug from the news.

Watching or listening to the news non-stop can worsen stress and anxiety levels. Set limits on when and how long you allow yourself to engage in viewing news programming or social media.

 10. Get plenty of sleep.

A well-rested individual manages stress much more effectively than one who is sleep-deprived. A recent study showed that sleep deprivation leads to less healthy food choices. Getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night helps manage stress more effectively.

 11. Fuel your body to fight stress.

Aim to make the majority of your food choices healthy ones. Allow yourself to indulge in your favorite “stress foods” every once-in-a-while and resolve to include the following types of food in your daily diet:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Lean protein foods

While stress eating can be especially easily to fall into during uncertain and challenging times, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet in order to boost your mood and your immune system. Managing stress properly is vital to improving the quality and quantity of your life.
 

To schedule a one-on-one consultation or learn more about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit cooperclinicnutrition.com or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Ginny Ives, RDN, LD, CDCES, LPC, Director of Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.