With such a busy schedule most of us face a multitude of stressful situations. With long hours at work or simply running a household, we often turn to food to soothe away the annoyances of problematic days. Let’s face it; after a full day of dropping off and picking up the kids, getting reports in on time, and battling traffic just in time to have 5 minutes of relaxation, nothing sounds better than our favorite snacks.
“After all that I deserve something delicious” sounds like an extremely prevalent mantra. Don’t get me wrong indulgence on occasion can boost anyone’s spirit! Our parents have enforced this our entire lives with one of the most famous parenting lines “You need to finish all your vegetables, and then you can have dessert!” In the attempt to teach the importance of a healthier diet, our parents have equated “comfort” and “reward” with food.
If you are good you get a reward, dessert, and feel comforted, unfortunately, this and number of other food-rewarding situations have perpetually influenced what, when, and why we eat. Now as adults with increasingly stressful lives what do we all do to comfort ourselves? That’s right; all too often, we turn to food to relieve stress. And it’s not usually so-called “healthy” and low-calorie foods we want. We want rich, creamy, salty, fattening, “comfort” foods.
However, before you start blaming good old mom and dad, there is scientific evidence that most of us who eat in response to stress are simply falling victim to heightened biochemical responses to comfort food. Those who are dieting, for example, tend to have lower levels of serotonin in their brains, that reported “low” feeling; experiencing a high-fat, high sugar, high calorie “sugar rush” raises serotonin levels, and can actually leave individuals susceptible to physical cravings for comfort foods.
This type of behavior is a self-supported physical addiction to certain foods. That is, some individuals may actually have a propensity to overeat in the same way someone addicted to smoking needs a cigarette in order to stay feeling “normal.”
What happens with stress eating?
For many people, the normal response to stress actually involved a shutting down of the appetite. However, in today’s fast-paced lifestyles, when we don’t get enough sleep and are under too much stress, this raises cortisol levels, which in turn raises our desires for fatty, salty, sweet foods that are not good for us. Unfortunately, this is a cycle that just won’t quit.
The response to stress, and the aftermath
When we’re stressed, we are more inclined to feast upon refined carbohydrate, fat, salty, sweet foods that are devoid of nutritional value, and for some people these types of foods are as addictive as nicotine. Because when you eat these foods your brain is flooded with serotonin however, this “feel good” rush of does not last long. Soon after stuffing our faces, guilt sets in and we feel terrible that we have consumed these empty calories that collect on our waistline, exactly where we don’t want them. Sometimes, the guilt and weight gain can lead to a poor body image, which can only exacerbate our stress and comfort food consumption. Again, another empty cycle of addiction that only leads you to feel pretty terrible about yourself.
Your solution begins with a change in attitude. Realize that stress eating is a form of addictive behavior and that simple “willpower” is usually not enough to change it for long. You are going to have to work on changing your lifestyle, and it may very well be that you’ll experience very real “withdrawal” symptoms when you quit eating your junk food, much like a cigarette addict experiences when he or she quits smoking. It can be very, very uncomfortable to go through this withdrawal, but it is necessary to begin breaking away from stress eating.
Therefore, the solution to resolving your stress eating issues is something that has to happen on several levels. First of all, realize that stress eating isn’t just about willpower. If you know this, you can help assuage guilt you have about “giving in” to temptation. If you know it’s not just about your willpower or lack thereof, you can quit feeling so badly about yourself and maybe let that go as a past behavior that doesn’t have to continue.
The second part of the solution to resolving stress eating issues is that you have to find other, healthier ways to deal with the stress. For example, when you feel tempted to eat in response to stress, stop. Ask yourself if you’re feeling stressed, and if the answer is yes, do something else. Take a walk outside and breathe in the cool air or pick up the phone and call your best friend. Do whatever you have to do to distract yourself from the feeling that you want to eat just because you’re feeling stressed.
Old addictions are hard to break and you are going to have cravings for your comfort foods for quite some time until your body quits expecting them. And it should be noted that it may very well be possible for you to occasionally have a bite or two of your comfort foods just because you want them, for example as a treat once or twice a week. What you can never return to again is a mindless binge on your old favorites as you once did.
What’s important to note, too, is that as your stress levels decrease, you are less likely to reach for your old standby comfort foods to satisfy you. In the event you do get the urge to “munch,” and if you can’t stop it, opt for healthy choices like raw cut veggies (celery, carrots, snap peas, green pepper) or a healthy choice like air popped popcorn.
One final note: If you do fall off the wagon and have a “stress eating binge” on comfort foods, don’t let that stop you from climbing right back on the next day and continuing with your new and healthier lifestyle. Let it go and move on to the next day; your new healthier lifestyle will make you feel so much better you won’t want your “comfort food” except as an occasional treat before long.