“Eating our feelings” is something many of us have done at one time or another. But stress-eating involves much more than just craving unhealthy foods. It’s actually a hormonal response. That's right. It's not about willpower.
No matter what’s causing stress in a person’s life, eating is one of the ways often used to cope with it. So why is that? Stress causes an increase in cortisol, and cortisol makes people crave comfort foods. The consumption of those foods helps to bring cortisol levels back down for some time. You see this response in people taking corticosteroids like prednisone or dexamethasone. Famously, these medications make people extremely hungry. And the reason is that they do what they do by flooding the body with cortisol. This is a necessity for those on these medications but the response in the body under stress is the same—our cortisol levels rise and the cravings kick in hard.
So we get stressed and the cortisol level in our bodies raise and our brains decide we need to eat to control this rise in cortisol. First of all, it's NOT about willpower so give yourself a break. You're not weak or loppy or lazy or any other less-than-kind thing you want to say about yourself. The surge of cortisol has created a very real and important response in your body.
Stress eating is a natural response to a normal hormone. Unfortunately, too much stress may lead to too much desire for unhealthy foods frequently and we can end up in an unhealthy imbalance as a result. So what's a person to do?
Although we often group foods as healthy or unhealthy, there’s little reason why we can’t enjoy some unhealthy food occasionally. Practicing mindful eating is one of the best ways to have unhealthy food without doing a lot of damage to the waistline or bodily systems. By eating mindfully, we’re acknowledging the food consumption and paying attention to it, which makes limiting it to a reasonable amount easier. Intuitive eating can also help with this as it teaches a way of being in touch with our minds and bodies.
Distracting and replacing is another way to handle the desire for unhealthy foods. With this technique, people find something else to do when they’re craving unhealthy items or replacing unhealthy food with something healthier instead. That helps address the stress while reducing the consumption of comfort foods.
Choosing stress busters that’re not food-based might be a healthier way to handle stress, too. Among the common options for stress relief are meditation, exercise, and hobbies. Some people may run, while others might read or cry, play loud music, go for a drive, get out to nature, paint or garden. There’s no right or wrong answer. The most important thing is to find what works for you and develop good coping strategies to keep the munchies at bay when cortisol strikes.
Lowering stress in our lives is the best way to go, but it’s not always possible. With the right coping techniques, stress eating can be less frequent and replaced by healthier coping habits. But most of all, if we can give you one takeaway, it's that we all need to stop blaming and shaming ourselves for responses that are natural. You're not weak for munching that ice cream after a hard day at work. You're responding to the signals of your body. And that's as it should be.
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