Imagine you have a presentation to deliver in a few hours, and you’re so stressed you’ve skipped lunch and lost your appetite. Yet, you look over at your colleague who is snacking on a pack of chips and chalks it up to stress eating. How does stress manifest as a lack of an appetite in some people, and a need to binge for others?
What is the connection between stress and appetite?
There is a strong connection between stress and food consumption but everyone reacts to stress in unique ways. When you are constantly faced with stress, it can interfere with your eating habits. Stress is our body’s natural response to a threat. When you feel stressed your body sends a signal to your brain, which turns on the fight-or flight response to help deal with the perceived threat. Your body releases cortisol, which increases your appetite. More commonly, cortisol increases your cravings for hyper-palatable comfort foods such as fast food, snacks, and calorie-dense snacks because your body thinks it needs instant, quick fuel to manage the threat that is causing you stress. Foods containing sugar, fat, or sodium are broken down and absorbed into our bloodstream rapidly; this increases our dopamine levels, creating feelings of happiness and pleasure.
Alternatively, for some people, corticotropin-releasing hormone is also released, which leads to appetite suppression. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline, which puts eating and digestion on hold as the body adapts to the stress situation. This is why some people might feel the urge to eat more when they are stressed while others lose their appetite completely.
How does stress manifest as emotional eating?
Persistent stress can encourage individuals to use food to make themselves feel better-eating to fill emotional needs rather than to fill your stomach, also known as emotional eating. While this doesn’t always have to be frowned upon—food can soothe emotions well—it can become a problem if it is the only coping mechanism. When you’re making an intentional decision to settle your emotions with food, there is a chance you will feel better. However when your actions are impulsive and reactive you’re more likely to eat in a way that’s disconnected, and feelings of guilt occur; this creates an unhealthy relationship with food. “A lot of people who struggle with stress and emotional eating feel a lot of guilt and shame. This comes from a culture that constantly tells us that it’s wrong or bad to overeat or eat unhealthily,” shares Tara Mahadevan, counselling psychologist and eating behaviours specialist. “Emotional eating is not morally wrong, it’s just a behaviour that doesn’t serve us well and we need to understand it without judgement in order to work through and overcome it.”
It’s important to know food is not your only channel to manage your emotions. When you feel the urge to eat in a stressful situation, write down what is triggering this feeling, where is it originating from? A helpful way to manage emotional eating is looking at it as one tool of many to cope with your emotions. But instead of continuously turning to food, building a self-care toolbox you can turn to when you’re feeling anxious, upset, or stressed, is key.
Maneka Grover is a certified Health Coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition based in New York
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