Do you notice that your diet or eating habits change when you're under stress? Do you eat when you're stressed or do you lose your appetite all together?

The effects of stress on our body, mind and spirit are very tangible, and the effects of stress on the way we eat or the way we view food are even more pronounced. Many people don't realize that when they're under stress, their eating will be compromised in one way or another. Whether you eat more, eat less, have digestive ailments or find yourself reaching for foods you normally wouldn't, your eating and physical health will change in the presence of stress.

When we're going through a stressful situation, our body is not concerned about digesting and assimilating food, it's concerned about survival. When the body enters into a stress response, blood is shunted away from the gut and flows towards the heart and the extremities in order to prepare us to fight or flee. This is why some people lose their appetite when they are feeling extreme amounts of stress. Although stress is not a bad thing in itself, chronic stress that lasts for days, months, or even years will start to breakdown the body making it more susceptible to illness and disease. 

Though some may lose their appetite, many people turn to food when they're stressed, calling themselves "emotional eaters". The key thing to remember is that we are human beings that experience emotions all the time, and we are also created to eat in order for us to survive, therefore we will always bring some sort of emotion to the table when we sit down for a meal. If you're a human being, you're technically an emotional eater. People who call themselves emotional eaters are often referring to the action of over consuming food when they feel stressed, meaning they are more "stress eaters" than "emotional eaters". 

As we are in a stress response, or sympathetic dominance, our appetite is deregulated from the excessive amounts of stress hormones that have been secreted. We start to reach for food because of this and keep reaching for more food because we create different hormonal responses with the certain types of food we gravitate towards when we feel stressed. 

Sugar, fat and salt are the ingredients people reach for when they're feeling stressed or in need of comfort. We know that processed foods and sugar are highly addictive and release endorphins (the same chemical response that cocaine and heroin solicit) so the more we consume, the more we want. Because our appetite is already deregulated from cortisol and adrenaline floating around in excess, we consume even more than we normally would, or reach for foods we normally wouldn't. We create a feedback loop that makes us reach for more food because of the "highs" we experience upon consumption as well as the fact that stress chemistry causes us to eat more food in itself.

As we eat under stress, we tend to lose focus on the activity of eating. We might eat food in front of screens, eat food as fast as we can so we can continue eating because it soothes us, and we aren't present during the course of our meal. Many people don't pay attention to when they eat normally let alone pay attention to when they're stress eating. This lack of attention during a meal means that our brain doesn't experience the aromas, tastes, textures and pleasure it needs for optimal digestion and satiation, which leaves us wanting more and feeling hungrier even though we've consumed enough food, or even over consumed.


This is what happens physiologically when we eat under stress:

  • We experience a stressor
  • Fight or flight is switched on 
  • Digestion is switched off 
  • Appetite is deregulated from excess stress hormones
  • We feel less pleasure from excessive amounts of stress hormones   
  • We reach for foods that bring us pleasure 
  • We eat more because of a deregulated appetite and because of the "feel good" hormonal responses those foods give us
  • We don't pay attention when we eat 
  • Our brain tells us to reach for more 
  • We temporarily feel better from neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine that are released when we eat sugar, fat and salt  
  • We train the body to reach for more "comfort foods" even though we don't digest food properly because of a lack of blood supply to the gut
  • We continue to be stressed and continue to reach for more...


If we continue to live in a perpetual state of stress, we will continue to have poor appetite regulation and we will always damage our body in one way or another by either over consuming food, eating foods that bring us pleasure but don't offer nourishment for the body or by ceasing to eat all together. 

If we want to change the way we eat when we feel stressed, if we want to stop consuming food just because we're stressed, we have to learn and be attuned to when we're engaging in stress eating. You may know that you're a stress eater but not know how to change what you're doing. By being aware of what you're doing is the first step in changing your mindsets and behaviours around food and unwanted eating challenges. 


The next time you feel stressed and want to reach for food, ask yourself these 3 questions: 


1. Am I eating because I'm hungry or am I eating because I'm feeling overwhelmed with a particular emotion or situation?


2. Am I reaching for foods that will bring me "comfort" but won't aid in building my body up (ex sugar, alcohol, processed foods, etc.)?


3. Is eating really going to bring me the comfort I need in this time of stress or intense emotion? 


What to do next:

1. Breath: breathing helps relax the body and starts to turn off the stress response and turn on digestion. Breathing allows you to get more oxygen to your brain which helps you with rational thinking.

2. Slow down: When you feel anxious and out of control, slow down. Take a step back from your situation and take a moment to figure our what you're feeling. If you need to leave the room and take a time out by yourself somewhere to collect your thoughts, do so.

3. Practice presence: If you're going to choose to eat while under stress, be present with your meal. Don't rush through it, don't eat in front of the tv or your phone. Eat slowly and let yourself enjoy the act of eating. Be mindful of the foods you choose and present them in a way that's appealing (ie: don't eat the food out of it's box, put it in a bowl and sit down to eat slowly). 


What do you do when you feel stressed? Do you eat when you're stressed or do you lose your appetite? I'd love to hear your answers!


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