Why Do I Eat When I'm Stressed?

“The biggest enemies of willpower: temptation, self-criticism, and stress. (...) these three skills —self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matter most— are the foundation for self-control.” Kelly McGonigal


Would you describe yourself as a stress-eater? Do you find that the moment that things get stressful, all of your good intentions around food go out of the window and you just turn to whatever will give you pleasure and comfort in the moment? Perhaps you find that when stress-eating, a little [food/chocolate/cake.. etc] is NEVER enough - and that you just need more and more, to try and numb the stress away? Or perhaps you find that when things get stressful, that you genuinely stop caring about your health, wellbeing and goals and will just do (and EAT) anything that will get you through the tough times? Or maybe you find that you are eating things to cope with stress and not even really enjoying them - perhaps just inhaling them, to give you that quick sugar high or rush?


So many people turn to food in times of stress... yet it isn't usually veggies that they are turning to in these moments. It will usually be sugary, fatty, starchy, comforting foods. Now there is nothing wrong with eating these types of foods sometimes - but often when "stress-eating" these types of foods, it can be in a way which means that the individual isn't really savouring and enjoying the food. They may just be trying to numb the stress away with food. So why do people stress eat?


Here are some reasons why you may be eating in times of stress:


YOUR WILLPOWER SHUTS OFF: The part of your brain that controls your willpower, the pre-frontal cortex does not function as effectively in times of stress and this means that you may be much more at the mercy of your impulses. If you find yourself seeing some chocolate and just reaching for it (despite not really wanting to eat it), this may be because your willpower and ability to reason out of that impulsive decision is just not functioning in the way that it usually would.


YOU TEND TO OPERATE IN AUTO-PILOT MODE: In times of stress we tend to default back into our "usual habits". So if you have been trying to make healthier choices or change your diet and lifestyle but then encounter some stressful times, you may not have the strength and energy to keep going with these new habits that you have been trying to build and instead may default back into some old-unhelpful habits.


YOUR BRAIN WILL SEEK OUT DOPAMINE HIGHS: Food (especially sugary, ultra-processed food) is one of the most socially-acceptable ways for us to get a quick rush or high. Whilst many managers wouldn't feel too great about their employees getting drunk, gambling or taking some hard drugs during their working day - many wouldn't bat an eyelid at an employee eating some biscuits or chocolate to get them through a tough meeting or afternoon. Sugar and processed foods can activate the pleasure centres in our brain - leaving us wanting more highs to feel better about the stressful times we are going through.


OUR HORMONES CHANGE: In times of stress our body often goes into a different "mode". Some people respond to this change in "mode" by losing their appetite and not being able to eat but others respond to this change in "mode" by feeling more of a drive to eat. Some of the changes that can happen in the body in times of stress can include surges in hormones such as cortisol, elevated blood sugar levels, a shift of blood away from the brain and digestive system and towards the limbs - and all of these changes, can result in more cravings for food (especially those fatty and sugary foods that will give us more of a blood sugar high).


So if you are someone that eats in times of stress, what can you do about your stress-eating?


DEVELOP AN AWARENESS AND UNDERSTAND YOUR PATTERNS: The first step is to develop an awareness of what is going on. Rather than just attributing your eating to "having no willpower" or "being weak" can you notice that you are actually eating because you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.


SHIFT YOUR ENVIRONMENT: As we are much more likely to give in to our impulses in times of stress, it can help to ensure that you have set up your environment so that it works in your favour. Keep the chocolate, biscuits etc. out of sight (and ideally out of the house completely) and instead stock up on the nourishing foods that you would feel comfortable turning to instead.


FIND NEW EFFECTIVE WAYS TO MANAGE STRESS: One of the most effective ways to manage stress eating is to manage and deal with the underlying stress so that it doesn't have so much of a negative impact on you. When I am working with clients one-on-one, we are often looking at ways in which we can lower stress levels in their lives in order to lessen the likelihood that they will need to stress eat in the first place.


DEVELOP NEW COPING MECHANISMS: As well as lessen the amount of stress in your life, it is important to also develop new ways to cope with stress that don't involve the consumption of any innocent biscuits/chocolate/sweets etc. that end up in your path. There are a range of tools that can be used to manage stress and stressful times and once these new coping mechanisms become your default way of dealing with stress, there won't be the need to turn to food to cope anymore.


BUILD NEW DEFAULT HABITS FOR STRESSFUL TIMES: When things get stressful we tend to default into our "usual" habits - therefore it is helpful to start building brand new helpful habits that you just engage in day-to-day. That way, when times are stressful, you are actually likely just to fall into these healthy and helpful habits. When working with clients, I help them to build new habits around food so that their relationship with food doesn't feel like a constant battle and struggle.


If you would like some support to manage emotional eating, please get in touch with me at info@thefoodtherapyclinic.com to book in a 20-minute free consultation.


“Sometimes i wish someone to come and sit besides me,

Hold my hand and say 'everything is alright‘.....!”

Nasir Ali Malik