During the peak of quarantine, the breakout stars on Instagram were banana bread and loaves of sourdough. Headlines marveled at the spike in snack food sales. On the sitcoms we rewatched for escapism, bad breakups were washed down with pints of ice cream. All-nighters were fueled with bags of chips. All of which is to say that in both life and art, stress can often lead to emotional eating, whereby we reach for comfort foods.
“Essentially, the chemical effects of cortisol will make you feel hungry,” says Laurel Mellin, PhD, author of The Stress Eating Solution and an associate professor emeritus of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “There is something called the stress eating triangle, which is a triangle of structures in the brain: the amygdala, the reward center, and the hypothalamus (or the appetite center). And when the stress response is activated, those three different structures cause a chemical reaction that makes us have strong desires to eat sugary, fatty foods.”
The Power of Comfort Food
There can also be another emotional component to the foods that soothe us. “If your mother made you macaroni and cheese when you were sick, you would tend to crave macaroni and cheese when you’re in a place where you feel down or stressed,” says Amy Goodson, RD, a dietitian in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “When someone is tired and worn out, no one looks for broccoli. They are looking for something salty or sweet or creamy because the fat in those types of foods is going to help you feel more satisfied in the moment.”
That sense of reward that comes from eating foods that are high in carbohydrates is due partly to the fact that carbs assist in the body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel calm. Indeed, the gut produces most of our body’s stores of the feel-good neurotransmitter. “Basically, serotonin helps relay calming messages to your brain,” says Goodson.
So, how do we resist the siren song of chocolate when we’re under stress? “The key is setting yourself up to be able to manage those stressful situations without looking to junk food,” says Goodson. Try these strategies to help.
Prime Yourself Against Splurges
Nutrition experts talk about the importance of keeping your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day for sustained energy. That also serves as a protection against stress eating. “Mental fatigue is often simply caused by blood sugar spikes and drops,” says Goodson. “If your blood sugar is low, it typically causes a decrease in mental acuity. You feel physically tired. You might have a headache.” Also, check in with yourself to see if you’re actually thirsty rather than hungry. If this is the case, drinking an electrolyte water is the quickest way to turn off your hunger.
And adding stress to the equation only amplifies the urge for sugary carbs. The stress hormone cortisol has an inverse relationship to insulin, the hormone that helps us metabolize carbohydrates and regulates blood sugar levels. That means that when cortisol levels remain elevated, insulin levels decrease, which can signal the body to crave carbs. If you’re stressed and your blood sugar is already low, it’s going to further prompt you to eat.
“On the other hand, if your body is well fueled, and in turn you feel like you have energy, handling life’s stressors tends to be a little bit easier,” says Goodson. The best way to both fend off mental fatigue and improve your ability to resist an urge for quick carbs under stress? “Eat often and eat a high-fiber carbohydrate with a protein.” Apple slices topped with peanut butter is a good example.
“Even better, foods that are higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat have more nutrients than sugary snacks by default and they help manage inflammation in the body,” Goodson explains.
Take a Pause To Do a Mental Shift
As you get the urge to reach for the nearest tempting treat, acknowledge the cause of your craving. “Stop and say to yourself, ‘It’s not me, it’s just stress,’” advises Mellin. Next, guide yourself toward a more positive frame of mind. “Process your emotions — don’t think your way out of it,” says Mellin, who calls the approach emotional brain training. Address the negative emotions and then think about reasons to feel positive, grateful, happy, and secure. “That’s when the chemical shift happens,” she says. “When you’re able to look at the snack and think, ‘I don’t even have any desire for it,’ then you’ve been successful.”
It’s also worth considering splashing some cold water on your face — really. Science proves exposure to cold water (including a nice cold shower) can strengthen your vagus nerve, which in turn will make you feel less stressed.
Make Sure You Have a Plan B
Rather than struggle to distract yourself from stress eating in the moment, ready a list of go-to alternatives. This way, you can quickly rely on these options to diffuse the urge. “Try to make a plan in advance of a stressful situation, when you feel good and life is great,” says Goodson. She suggests thinking of three things that you can do in place of eating. If you love to read, pick up your favorite book. Do you get comfort from talking to someone? Know the top three people you can call. Or simply go for a walk. “For a lot of people, getting out of the situation — actually removing themselves from the kitchen — can do the trick,” she says.
Common sense will tell you that having easy access to your favorite snack can make it harder to resist when you’re under stress. “If certain foods are triggers to you to overeat and you are in a stressful time or season, don’t keep those foods in abundance at your house or office,” says Goodson. “Overeating can be due to the accessibility of food.” Even if you end up giving in to the urge to snack, you’ll increase the likelihood of grabbing a healthier option than that tub of rocky road.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, How to Beat Stress, in 2022.
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