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Are You Stress Eating?

by Alyssa Starr October 04, 2022 3 min read

Are You Stress Eating?

While we often consider the impact that stress can have on our mental health, we rarely think about the relationship between our stress levels and our eating habits.

Stress plays a major role in our food choices, the portion sizes we eat, and our ability to maintain a healthy weight. 

To determine the connection between stress, stress eating, and weight gain, we need to look at the two types of stress: eustress and distress.   

Eustress

Not all stress is bad. Physical exercise, riding a roller coaster, working on an exciting project, or your first day at a new job are all examples of good stress, or eustress. This acute, exciting stress is temporary; and as long as it is not extreme and we allow ourselves to rest and recharge afterward, it is healthy and needed.

Where stress becomes problematic is when it goes from acute eustress to prolonged stress, also called chronic stress, or when it is severe in nature. This type of stress is called distress. When we say, “I’m so stressed out!” We are referring to distress. 

Recognizing the difference between acute eustress and chronic distress is essential when working to understand the role that stress plays in stress eating and in weight gain.

The stressed brain expresses both a strong drive to eat and an impaired capacity to inhibit eating — together creating a potent formula for obesity. These findings are consistent with behavioral and clinical research indicating that stress or negative affect decreases emotional and behavioral control and increases impulsivity.

Here are 4 ways to reduce your chances of stress eating according to licensed psychologist Dr. Rebecca Leslie:

  1. Pause and check in. When you feel stressed and have the urge to eat or snack, Dr. Leslie suggests asking yourself these questions: What you are thinking and feeling? Are you feeling controlled or restricted when it comes to eating, or in any other area of your life? Do you feel like you are not able to do what you want to do? By pausing to check in, you can identify what you're feeling and better determine what you need.
  2. Give yourself what you want and need. “Chances are, if you are stress eating, it is not the food that you are needing,” says Dr. Leslie. Try to identify what you actually want or need, instead of filling that void with food. “In the short term, it is much easier to push down what’s going on than to face it head on. But if there is a problem going on in your life, dedicate the time to trying to problem solve it to find a long-term solution,” adds Dr. Leslie. 
  3. Stop labeling foods "good" or "bad." Foods are not inherently good or bad. When dealing with stress eating, it is important to let go of labeling food in those terms. Dr. Leslie calls this “taking the morality out of food.”
  4. Develop coping skills. Building a tool kit of coping skills is essential for better managing stress. These skills can also be helpful by providing a healthier alternative to stress eating. Dr. Leslie recommends deep breathing, going for a walk, or doing a meditation. 

Hopefully this blog will shed light and help you become more mindful of when you're eating in distress, or not eating enough when experiencing extreme stress in your life. 

This is not medical advice, all changes in your mental or physical health should be addressed by your physician. 

 


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