The Real Reasons Behind Stressful Eating & How To Break It

stressful eating

So you’re doing great on your new diet and then something happens at work that doesn’t go your way or you have a big disagreement with a friend. Next thing you know, your week of clean eating is being drowned in a pint of ice cream and bag of potato chips. The reasons for stressful eating go far beyond just not having willpower. In fact, there’s a biological reason that when the going gets tough, you get munching.

5 ways to stop stressful eating for good

It’s no surprise if you suddenly feel famished when deadlines or crises strike. “Stress activates your adrenal glands to release cortisol, increasing your appetite,” says Melissa McCreery, PhD, ACC, psychologist and the emotional eating expert behind the site Too Much On Her Plate. Stress also impedes hunger hormones, like ghrelin, that regulate your appetite, research shows. If the anxiety is cutting into your sleep, a lack of zzz’s ramps up your appetite even more.

Unfortunately, that anxiety-induced hunger can have long-term consequences for your waistline. In fact, one new study found that women who reported they were stressed burned fewer calories and fat, and had a higher insulin response after eating a higher fat meal.

When you’re under stress, you often feel out of control and overwhelmed — and that can leak into your eating habits, McCreery says. So it’s no surprise that you go after junk food like a hungry lion, rather than keeping up your normally healthy habits. “You’re worried about the past or the future — not what you’re eating in the present,” she adds.

While it’s too bad you don’t crave celery sticks and carrots during crazed moments, that would go against biology. Fries, snack mixes, cookies and ice cream are go-tos because these high-carb, high-fat eats increase the brain’s feel-good dopamine response, Alex explains. Then, next time you get into a bind, you’ll hear the siren song of chocolate chips because your noggin has come to expect the rewarding hit of dopamine — and knows where to find it. (Ahem, cookies.)

Not only that, but it’s easy for stress snacking to become an ingrained habit. You feel better on a sugar high. Over time, your brain may start to rely on these foods to simmer down.

Ready to break free from stress eating and bring back happiness to your eats? Try some of these simple tricks next time anxiety strikes.

1. Focus on the real issue.

We all know food is just a crutch when we’re stressed. “Stress eating is not the primary problem, but a symptom of unmet needs,” says Alex. Ask yourself ‘How do I feel?’ or ‘What do I need?’ to figure out what’s really getting under your skin.

2. Think long-term.

Take a minute to focus on the future (whether that means recalling your weight loss goals, or how awesome you want to look on vacation next month) before you give in to stress eating. It can help get you out of the moment so you make healthier food choices instead of succumbing to the lure of a tasty treat, suggests a 2014 study.

3. Get mindful.

In a study in the Journal of Obesity, women who underwent mindfulness training — learning stress reduction techniques, how to recognize hunger, and pay attention to taste — were less apt to stress eat and lost more belly fat compared to a control group. Next time you’re feeling taxed, try this exercise. You’ll learn to identify your feelings, accept the unpleasant ones and focus on your breathing so you can fight the automatic urge to reach for a snack.

Continue reading: Why you stress-eat and how to stop it

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