Health journalist Ceri Moorhouse asks the experts why we crave sugary, fatty foods in times of stress and what you can do to take control.
Whether in times of stress, boredom, loneliness or sadness, many people use food to help them cope with their feelings.
But what is the science behind this? Emotional or stress eating is a result of the body’s reaction to moments like these. “The hormone cortisol rises with chronic stress and can lead to increased appetite, making us hungrier,” explains Dr Emma Short, chartered health psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire. “We can also experience this as intense cravings for sugary or fatty foods.” In addition, it’s a sort of coping mechanism. “Food can be used as a distraction strategy in the same way that people might use alcohol, drugs or sex and even TV as a way to dissociate from difficult, stressful feelings.”
Emotional eating is common and doesn’t always mean overeating. “Some research has shown that people respond differently to stress, and that when faced with a stressful situation roughly 40% increase their food intake, 40% decrease it, and 20% don’t change their eating behaviours,” says Claire Pettitt, specialist dietician and media spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
Whether or not you ‘stress eat’ may depend on other factors, too. “Overeating and not eating enough because of stress are both slightly more common traits in women than in men. Worryingly, however, it is becoming more and more common through the generations.”
Food for thought
A hot chocolate on the odd dreary afternoon isn’t cause for concern, but if food is the only way you’re able to deal with your emotions, there might be a problem.
“Overeating due to stress often leaves people with feelings of guilt, disappointment and shame about their bodies as well as feeling physically lazy and sluggish. So, using comfort eating as your only coping mechanism in times of stress is not good for your mental health,” says Pettitt. It also means you have less capacity to make healthier diet choices. “Cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods drown our bodies’ signals of the necessity for a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and oily fish, so the quality of our diet becomes less than optimal.”
Spot the signs
How can you tell if stress is causing you to overeat? “You can learn to recognise the differences between physical hunger and hunger cravings that are based on an emotional state,” explains Dr Short. You can tell real physical hunger as this builds slowly, as opposed to abrupt hunger pangs. “Physical hunger usually presents other signs, like a rumbling tummy or fatigue. Emotional-based cravings also wear off within a few minutes, whereas physical hunger does not.”
When ‘hanger strikes’
It’s important to remember that hunger can also affect your mood, and may have a negative impact on how you feel. “‘Hangry’ is the combination of physiological hunger and anger. This is when people get grumpy and short-tempered as a result of being hungry,” says Pettitt. “When our blood glucose levels – the fuel for our brain and organs – drop, we find it hard to concentrate and become sluggish and irritable. When we reach the level of ‘hangry’, we start to have similar high-sugar and high-fat cravings. However, consuming these will cause a quick spike and subsequent drop in our blood sugars and restart the cravings.
“The best way to deal with ‘hanger’ is to tune in to the body’s hunger cues. Eat when you first start to notice the physical signs of hunger.” Try sticking to routine meal times as much as possible and having healthy snacks on hand so you don’t end up panic snacking.
Take steps to tackle the root cause of emotional eating, rather than just relying on quick fixes. “Stress can impact all areas of your life, including your work performance and personal relationships,” explains Dr Short. “Healthy habits such as regular exercise, sleep and eating a balanced diet are all known to decrease levels of stress. But if you still feel out of control or are experiencing consistently high stress levels, it might be time to seek out a professional who can help.” If you’re ever concerned about stress, speak to your GP.
Shift your mindset
Research shows that mindful eating practices are effective at reducing binge eating and addressing the emotional impact of negative body image – a possible symptom of stress – on eating. You can adopt more mindful eating habits by following these five steps.
Dr Short says: “Taking time to really enjoy food is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. You’re more likely to notice when you are full and you’re less likely to overeat.”
Starting to become more mindful can take as little as two minutes. Read our busy persons’ guide to learning how to meditate.