How it begins…
Imagine you are sitting at your desks attempting to conquer a competitive new project that is a make or break on a big promotion. You have been struggling with it all day, but it just doesn’t seem good enough to make a solid impression and secure your position. Feelings of anxiety and overwhelm start creeping in and from nowhere you think: “Well maybe I should just take a walk down to the kitchen and get a little snack so that I can refocus on the task.”
Or, you have been chasing your kids around all day, constantly fulfilling their needs before your own and not having a moment to finish (or even start!) the mounting work around you. You may think: “It wouldn’t be the worst thing if I snuck into the pantry for a bite of something, just for a little break to clear my head and regain some patience.”
And sometimes in the evening while we lay in bed we are thinking about the day, the week ahead, and everything going on in our lives. Our minds start to create a whirlpool of the mounting debt, the bills still unpaid, and everything we still need to buy to get through the month. Suddenly we think: “I could really use something to eat- maybe something sweet and crunchy- just to calm me down.” Maybe you are even starting to feel a bit hungry just reading this article! The all too familiar concept of stress eating takes a variety of forms, but the one thing all scenarios have in common is eating when we really ought to be doing something else.
We eat because we are stressed, and we are stressed because we eat
It has been shown physical and emotional distress increases the intake of foods high in fat and sugar in several mammals, so it makes complete sense that this would also apply to humans. We tend to think of ourselves as being tremendously complex creatures, however most of our operating system is run by electrical currents and chemical signals sent through our nervous system to communicate about the world around us.
For example, when we start to feel elevated stress hormones like cortisol in the body, it also triggers a release of ghrelin, our hunger hormone. The exact link here is still up for debate, but it is thought that stress makes us want to eat excessively (and store fat) because stress is the messenger of uncertainty, fight, flight or freeze. We humans have a tendency to freeze in front of the open freezer with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.
At the same time as our stress hormones make us want to store fat, other elements of our nervous system want to just make us feel better. When we eat any food we produce endorphins (happy hormones) that flood our brain once we have eaten enough to communicate satisfaction. This both tells us to stop eating and rewards us for having found food in the first place.
When we decide to eat certain foods that we deem particularly tasty, our bodies also release dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for pleasure. Interestingly, it is enough to make the decision to reward your stress with the foods you are infatuated with. Just going to the cupcake shop, ordering a pizza, or deciding to go look in the fridge for chocolate can get you a short lived hit of dopamine. You don’t even have to follow through with actually eating the food!
We also know that if we continually experience chronic stress and continue to overeat highly palatable foods we eventually disrupt how the nervous system triggers and delivers the reward response of neurotransmitters. This essentially means that the more a person stress eats, the easier it becomes to gain weight on a biochemical level. The body becomes primed to put on more fat for everything you eat and stops receiving the same quantity of chemical reward, so more needs to be eaten to get the same payoff.
We need to accept that it is our actions that create this cycle
It may also be psychological and behavioral. As WILDFIT founder Eric Edmeades says: “If you use sugar or non food as a drug when you are feeling down, your body learns that the way to get that ‘reward’ is to make you feel down, creating a terrible downward spiral.” For example, you created a coping strategy that when you feel stress you give yourself permission to eat a bar of chocolate. Now when your body has been neutral for a while without either strong positive or negative emotions, your brain can recall stressful memories and events to release stress hormones in the body that will predictably be followed by a substance (the chocolate) that will create a rush of pleasure from reward hormones.
Your limbic system, the emotional center of your brain, has learned that stress is a trigger that will get a dopamine (pleasure) response. In modern times we have become accustomed to near constant hits of this brain chemical throughout the day with the stimulation of videos and games available on our phones, but also the constant availability of highly palatable food. Our prefrontal cortex (the higher brain) tells us: “You don’t need more chocolate! You just had a chocolate chip cookie when you were feeling down at breaktime!” Then the limbic system can respond: “I am sad again now! That chocolate will help me feel better!” while at the same time cuing emotional memories that will make you feel sadness so that you can then receive the dopamine reward, which will then be followed by more guilt, shame and stress.
As Eric said, this becomes a downward spiral, because the more stressed we become, the more our eating patterns and food choices are affected and the less we perceive that time is available to correct those habits. We feel too busy to plan or prepare meals so we create inconsistent meal times and fall back on convenience foods. Unfortunately, when we aren’t fueling our bodies with nutritious foods and water regularly, we can become more susceptible to stress related symptoms. We start sleeping later, we avoid our to do list with more screen time, we stop making time or having energy for exercise, and eventually may stop prioritizing our health altogether. And so the cycle continues; until we take some positive action that is.
Outsmarting our biology to stress eat better
Hopefully by reading this article you understand that although you may feel completely responsible for these less than healthy habits you have created, you can now understand that your biology has also played a huge role in getting you to where you are. Rather than fighting biology and constantly putting your prefrontal cortex (willpower) up against your limbic system (cravings and habits) you can work with your body so that it can actually help you overcome stress eating. Becoming aware of why we do things is very powerful, because it enables us to stop blaming ourselves for being out of control and to take responsibility for the choices we have made, then take action to solve the problems we have created.
It is unlikely that you are going to be whisked out of your whirlwind life and settled on a mountain under a cherry blossom tree any time soon, so instead of ignoring stress, become proactive in helping your body decrease it. Just as certain food products like sugar, alcohol, processed foods and caffeinated beverages can exacerbate anxiety and depression, other foods can soothe and restore our nervous system. Some of our favorites are listed here:
- Healthy fats from oily fish, eggs, avocados, nuts and seeds provide the body with anti-inflammatory benefits to calm biological stress, and also help us produce eicosanoids which then create our other happy hormones.
- Organ meats, including the heart, liver, and kidneys of pastured cows, chickens and wild animals are an excellent source of B vitamins, especially B12, B6, riboflavin, and folate, which are essential for stress control and the production of mood regulating neurotransmitters.
- Citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables provide the body with vitamin C, which is necessary for reducing stress in the body. All that fiber helps to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. It also creates a healthy gut environment, which is necessary for the proper digestion and absorption of nutrients and production of happy hormones.
- Berries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in particular, and grapes are high in flavonoid antioxidants that have powerful anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects that help reduce inflammation and protect against stress-related cellular damage.
- Herbal teas like lemon balm, lavender, chamomile, and peppermint provide a warm, comforting and soothing experience, create fullness in the belly, and contain specific compounds that may help calm the mind.
Emotions, like the fear, sadness and anger that create stress, are energy in motion. If we want to move that stress out of the body we need to do so actively. Intentional movement like a morning walk, a hike in nature, a swim or dancing can help us by providing an alternative source of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, and remind the body that there is a better way to get our happy hormones flowing. We can also use our breath. When we become stressed our breathing pattern changes which helps communicate the fight, flight or freeze mechanism in the body. If instead of walking to the refrigerator we pause and simply breathe deeply using the WILDFIT method, we can calm ourselves down and turn off the signals telling us to grab the ice cream. Using your breath and other mindfulness and present moment exercises can be game changers when it comes to breaking old harmful habits.
You can also make the empowered choice to become proactive about your emotional eating. On September 10th, 11AM New York Time we are hosting a masterclass in which you can learn more about the Six Human Hungers and how they impact the food choices you make. If you found this article empowering, join us in the first two weeks of our 90 Day Challenge starting September 21st. You will learn powerful tools that will help you further understand your unique motivators for stress eating, and how to overcome them. We hope to see you there!