Stress and eating habits are related. Chronic stress can affect the body’s use of calories and nutrients in various ways. It raises the body’s metabolic needs and increases the use and excretion of many nutrients. If one does not eat a nutritious diet, a deficiency may occur. Stress also creates a chain reaction of behaviors that can negatively affect eating habits, leading to other health problems down the road.
Here are some of the reasons why stress and eating habits are related.
• Stress places a greater demand on the body for oxygen, energy, and nutrients. Yet people who experience chronic stress may crave comforting foods such as highly processed snacks or sweets, which are high in fat and calories but low in nutrients
• People feeling stress may lack the time or motivation to prepare nutritious, balanced meals, or may skip or forget to eat meals.
• Stress can disrupt sleep by causing lighter sleep or more frequent awakenings, which leads to fatigue during the day. In order to cope with daytime fatigue, people may use stimulants to increase energy such as with caffeine or high-calorie snack foods. The reverse may also be true that poor-quality sleep is itself a stressor. Studies have found that sleep restriction causes a significant increase in cortisol levels.
• During acute stress, the hormone adrenaline suppresses the appetite. But with chronic stress, elevated levels of cortisol may cause cravings, particularly for foods high in sugar, fat, and calories, which may then lead to weight gain.
• Cortisol favors the accumulation of fat in the belly area, also called central adiposity, which is associated with insulin resistance and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain breast cancers. It also lowers levels of the hormone leptin (that promotes satiety) while increasing the hormone ghrelin (that increases appetite).
Tips to Help Control Stress and Eating Habits
Healthy diet. A balanced diet can support a healthy immune system and the repair of damaged cells. It provides the extra energy needed to cope with stressful events. Early research suggests that certain foods like polyunsaturated fats including omega-3 fats and vegetables may help to regulate cortisol levels. If you frequently rely on fast food because you are tired or too busy to prepare meals at home, consider meal planning, a practice that can help save time in the long run, ensure more balanced healthful meals, and prevent weight gain.
Mindful eating. When we “stress-eat,” we eat quickly without noticing what or how much we’re eating, which can lead to weight gain. Mindful eating practices counteract stress by encouraging deep breaths, making thoughtful food choices, focusing attention on the meal, and chewing food slowly and thoroughly. This increases enjoyment of the meal and improves digestion. Mindful eating can also help us realize when we are eating not because of physiological hunger but because of psychological turbulence, which may lead us to eat more as a coping mechanism.
Regular exercise. Physical activity will help to lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels. Aerobic exercise like walking and dancing increases breathing and heart rate so that more oxygen reaches cells throughout the body. This reduces tension in muscles, including the heart.
Meditation or deep breathing techniques. Fast, shallow breathing and erratic thoughts occur in response to stress. Therefore, take slow deep breaths to reduce muscular tension, lower the heart rate, and calm the mind. Whenever you feel stressed, breathe slowly, focusing on each in- and out-breath. Through this simple act, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and can help you calm down. If you’d like some guidance, try this short mindful breathing exercise. Additionally, certain exercises like yoga and tai chi emphasize deep breathing and a focused mind.
Mental health counseling or other social support. Feeling alone can add to stress. It can help to talk through feelings and concerns with a trusted individual. Often, just realizing that you are not alone and that your feelings are not unusual can help lower stress.
Practicing work-life balance. Use vacation and personal time, or just set aside an hour a day. A periodic escape from the pressures of work can do wonders to reduce stress, increase productivity, and decrease the risk of physical and mental illnesses that are associated with workplace burnout.
Schedule fun activities or hobbies at least once a week. Gardening, reading, enjoying music, getting a massage, hiking in nature, and cooking a favorite recipe are examples of welcome stress relievers.
Good sleep hygiene. Stress can cause a heightened sense of alertness, which delays the onset of sleep as well as cause interrupted sleep throughout the night. This can prevent one from entering the deeper sleep stages in which the body repairs and grows tissue and supports a healthy immune system. The REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stage in particular helps with mood regulation and memory. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night by slowing down about 30 minutes before bedtime. Controlling stress through the other tips listed above can also improve sleep quality.
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