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October 14, 2022

Many Americans struggle with stress eating, but there are ways to overcome it

It's important to recognize the difference between physical hunger and emotional cravings. But it's possible to retrain the brain to desire healthier foods, too

Healthy Eating Stress
Stress eating Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Stress eating can lead to the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other health issues.

Stress. It can make people feel angry, anxious or easily irritated. It can cause headaches and upset stomachs. It can lead to unhealthy behaviors as coping mechanisms. 

One of the biggest coping mechanisms is stress eating. 

About 56% U.S. adults who responded to a survey by the International Food Information Council reported feeling "very" or "somewhat" stressed over the last six months. And 1 in 4 adults said they "often" or "always" eat when stressed. 

Stress eating can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other health issues, so it is important to understand its triggers and how to cope with stress in healthier ways.

Why people stress eat

The stress hormone cortisol provides protection from immediate threats by sending the body into fight-or-flight mode. But when stress levels are constantly high, whether from work, family or financial issues, it becomes a chronic situation. 

One of the side effects of too much cortisol is body fat, particularly belly fat. Studies have shown that people with chronically elevated cortisol levels tend to have higher body mass indexes.

Even when people follow a healthy diet, chronic stress can increase body fat, scientists say. And because stress can lead to stress eating, it can be difficult to keep off the extra pounds.

Stress causes people to eat more because cortisol reduces the brain's sensitivity to leptin, the hormone that controls appetite and signals that people are full, laboratory studies have shown.

Yet, stress causes some people to lose their appetite while prompting others to crave comfort foods, like chocolate and chips, which activate the reward center of the brain. 

Researchers aren't sure why people react differently to stress, but some studies suggest that it might have to do with insulin resistance. That can cause changes in brain activity so that the more people feel stressed, the more they crave unhealthy foods. Insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes and is more common in people with obesity.

A benefit of family dinners

The first step to avoiding stress eating is to try to minimize the stress in your life. Meditating, practicing self-care, exercise, and practicing gratitude are all good ways to reduce stress. Deep breathing, spending time with loved ones and just having a good laugh or a good cry also can help. 

Eating dinner as a family also can help people reduce stress, according to the American Heart Association. In a survey of 1,000 adults, 91% of parents said their families were less stressed when they shared meals together. Eighty-four percent said they wished they could have family meals more often.

A majority said family dinners reminded them of the importance of connecting with others and to take a break from their stressful lives. Many respondents also said that eating meals together led them to make healthier food choices.

"Sharing meals with others is a great way to reduces stress, boost self-esteem and improve social connection, particularly for kids," Dr. Erin Michos, associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, told U.S. News & World Report. "Chronic, constant stress can also increase your lifetime risk of heart disease and stroke, so it is important for people to find ways to reduce and manage stress as much as possible, as soon as possible."

Retraining the brain

Of course, it is not feasible to eliminate all the stress in life. But stress eating does not need to get the best of people. One study found that people can retrain the brain to crave healthier foods when they are stress eating.

Eating a serving of fresh fruit about 5 minutes into daily, deep relaxation sessions helps the brain associate healthier foods with relaxation, the researchers found. After just one week of this practice, the participants' brain activity showed that they were beginning to view fruit as a comfort food. Even just eating the fruit alone made the participants feel less stressed, the researchers found.

"Anytime two things happen at the same time your mind creates a connection between them," A. Janet Tomiyama, the head of the Dieting, Stress and Health Lab at the University of California at Los Angeles, told The Washington Post. "By pairing relaxation and fruit together, your mind starts to see them as the same thing. After a while, you won't even need to do the six minutes of relaxation: All you'll need to do is eat the fruit, and you'll get that same relaxation benefit."

Other ways to curb stress eating

If you find that you are an overall emotional eater, and not just when you are stressed, there are other strategies you can use to better understand your relationship with food, including these:

• Keeping a food diary, the Mayo Clinic suggests. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you're feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. This will help you identify any strong connections between mood and food.

• When you are craving a snack, try to identify if you are really physically hungry or if it is more of an emotional craving. If you have eaten recently, fulfill the emotional need in another, more healthy way, such as going for a walk or talking to a loved one.

•If your body is giving you cues that your are hungry, then choose healthy snacks such as fruits and vegetables, Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests. If you allow yourself a small treat, pay attention to serving sizes. Don't sit down to binge a tv show with a pint of ice cream.

• Avoid temptations. Does the candy jar on the kitchen counter always call to you? Do you always keep your kitchen stocked with high-calories snacks like chips and cookies? Get rid of all the temptations so it is easier to make healthier choices.

• Drink enough water, because thirst is often confused for hunger, experts advise

• Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you find it hard to curb emotional eating on your own, ask a family member or a friend to support you through the process or join a support group.

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