Are You A Stress Eater?

Are You A Stress Eater?

Stress eating is a growing epidemic. Underneath all those mouth-watering snaps of plump doughnuts and silky ribbons of pasta in an entangled pile on a plate on Instagram, the hashtag #stresseating runs rife – in fact, over 100,000 Insta posts carry the label. So just what is stress eating, and how do we stop?

What is stress eating?

As many of us already know, the strongest food cravings often hit at a time when you’re the most stressed out, or when you’re at a low point emotionally. As a result, we tend to turn to food for comfort, either consciously or subconsciously.

The feeling of emotional eating differs from the pangs of real hunger. Mindful eating expert Dr Susan Albers says physical hunger will manifest itself as a rumbling stomach and low energy, whereas stress hunger will come on more suddenly if you’re feeling worried or frustrated. She also notes that, rather than nutritious food, you crave salty, fatty foods that will give you relief or fill you with a sense of security.

Why do we stress eat?

Stress is essentially a survival mechanism. It’s the body’s natural defence against danger, flushing the body with hormones to prepare your system to either evade or confront danger (also known as ‘fight or flight’ mode). When we’re faced with a challenge, the body produces larger quantities of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which in turn triggers an increased heart rate, heightened muscle preparedness, sweating and alertness. Cortisol is the main culprit when it comes to stress eating: when the adrenal glands release the cortisol, it tells your body to replenish that energy by increasing your appetite for high-calorie foods, which will make you hungry.

According to new research, Britain is in the grips of a stress epidemic due to an ‘always on’ workplace culture – a survey of 4,000 people conducted in 2017 by AXA found that four out of five adults feel stressed during a typical week, while almost one in ten were stressed all the time. And, as an added bonus, women suffer more stress than men – from 2016 to 2017, there were 1,880 cases of female work-related stress per 100,000 workers, compared to 1,170 men.

Research also indicates that women are more likely to turn to food when stressed; a Finnish study showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women, but not men. Another study found that women who were chronically stressed metabolised fat and sugar in a different way to those who weren’t constantly anxious. This means that the weight gain isn’t just down to what or how much we eat, but rather that stress has the ability to alter how our bodies cope with sustenance.

What can you do to stop?

In order to get a grip on your stress eating, the Mayo Clinic has several suggestions:

Get support: You’re more likely to give in to emotional snacking if you don’t have a good support network surrounding you, so talk to family and friends if you’re feeling stressed or join a support group.

Take some deep breaths: Try and tame your stress levels by taking some time out of your day to do some meditation, yoga or deep breathing exercises.
Keep a food diary: Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you're feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you might see patterns that reveal the connection
Take away temptation: Don't keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. And if you feel angry or blue, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check.
Don't deprive yourself: When trying to lose weight, you might limit calories too much, eat the same foods repeatedly and banish treats. This may just serve to increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, enjoy an occasional treat, and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
Snack healthy: If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a low-fat, low-calorie snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip or unbuttered popcorn. Or try low-fat, lower calorie versions of your favourite foods to see if they satisfy your craving.
Learn from setbacks: If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you're making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that'll lead to better health.
If you’ve tried the above techniques but are still struggling to control emotional eating, consider trying therapy with a mental health care professional. Therapy can help you get down to the reasons why you stress eat and can provide you with coping skills to help keep it under control.
For advice on finding a therapist, or more information about how talking treatments like counselling could help you, visit

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