That moment you reach for those cookies, and you know you shouldn’t. When you’re trying hard to focus and concentrate, but your brain is telling you that you need something yummy to eat. When you finish a meal, and you know you ate more then you needed.
Eating is essential for our survival. If we don’t eat, we die. But eating is also complicated because it’s tied to our emotions, what we learned to enjoy in our childhood, our current state of mind, and even how well we slept last night.
Firstly, some people lose their appetite when they feel very stressed, while others gravitate to food. Both reactions to stress aren’t healthy for us over the long term. But in this article, we’re going to address why some people eat more when they are feeling stressed.
That Tiger is Making you Hungry
Let’s discuss what happens in the body and brain when we are feeling stressed. The brain is an ancient organ and responds to psychological stress in the same way it would respond if a tiger was chasing you. When a tiger is chasing you, you don’t stop to think about whether it’s really a threat. Your brain immediately starts a process that sends a rush of glucose to your muscles via adrenaline, to get you as far away from the tiger as possible. This stress response and rush of glucose to our muscles is only meant to last from between 30 to 60 seconds. After all, within that time you became the tiger’s lunch, or you escaped his clutches.
The challenge for us today is that the stress response does not end after the 30 to 60 seconds. So, our body and brain keep on sending glucose to our muscles to fight what is a psychological, or imaginary threat. We are not physically in danger although our body and brain doesn’t know that. This ongoing stress response, with elevated adrenaline and blood glucose, upsets the beautiful balance that is supposed to exist between our stress response and our ability to be calm and at peace. Technically, this means our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) are not working together.
Processed Foods Become Magnetic
This imbalance upsets our appetite and satiation balance too. It leads to us wanting to eat even when we aren’t truly hungry. One of the reasons this happens is because we have learned from a very young age that foods that are very sweet and palatable, or even salty, also reduce feelings of stress. Let’s call these ‘stress magnet’ foods.
Our body produces endogenous (made inside us) opioids when we eat these foods. (Yes, we can make these anxiety and stress reducing chemicals within our own bodies.) When we unconsciously link the eating of these kinds of foods, with a reduction in stress, eating these ‘stress magnet’ foods become a habitual response. This is one of the main reasons people gravitate to these kinds of foods when they are stressed.
Unfortunately, the stress response is also very nutrient demanding. Adrenaline is produced using specific nutrients, which we run out of when we feel stressed all the time. To add insult to injury, these ‘stress magnet’ foods don’t contain the nutrients we need to make adrenaline. So, we also lose the ability to make energy, which is why stress leaves us feeling exhausted too.
How To Fix This Challenge
So how do we solve this challenge, especially when it feels like stress is overwhelming us and we can’t escape it?
The first step of course is to become more stress resilient. One of the simplest ways to do this is to focus on what you can control, versus what you can’t control. It takes a little bit of practice but soon you’ll find yourself feeling more in control of what you can change in your life and ignoring all the (many) things that you can’t.
Fix Your Pantry
Step two is to remove the ‘stress-magnet’ foods from our pantry. This removes temptation but you do need to replace those foods with healthier foods and treats. Focus on making meals from scratch using fresh produce, with a good oils and wonderful herbs and spices, and you’ll be rewarded with more stable blood glucose which helps you manage things that feel overwhelming. Create treats using nuts and seeds, combined with the natural sweetness found in dates. Refrigerate the treats and then dip them into dark chocolate to make them delectable. They’re also nutrient dense so help increase your nutrient intake and keep your blood glucose stable.
Catch Decision Fatigue
Another way to make better food choices, is to keep a look out for something called ‘Decision Fatigue.’ The brain doesn’t have an unending supply of energy, and as the day winds down, its energy reserves wind down to. This is not just to do with not having enough nutrients, it’s also to do with needing to rest and replenish our reserves overnight.
When the brain is tired it does one of two things. It either makes a habitual response, or it does nothing. In relation to food choices, our brain goes for the habitual response, which generally means it chooses to eat something that’s easy to make and satisfies our taste buds quickly. Therefore, it makes sense to set up your fridge and pantry with foods that allow you to make a quick and easy decision at the end of the day but still results in a healthy but delicious meal.
A Beautiful Ripple Effect
When we eat nutrient dense and fibre-filled food we naturally help our blood glucose become more stable. This helps us in two ways: it allows the brain to think more clearly because it has more energy to do so. Secondly, when our blood glucose dips, the brain and body also send a huge rush of adrenaline into the bloodstream to force us to find food. This feels like a stress response, and we respond by eating more than we need.
If you follow these strategies, you’ll find yourself feeling calmer and more in control of your life – and your health. It won’t happen overnight but if you’re persistent and patient you will gravitate to better food choices and ‘Stress Magnet’ foods will lose their allure.
Can you use your brain to stop stress eating?
I’d love to hear your thoughts so simply drop me a message in the comments box.
About The Author
Delia McCabe (PhD) shifted her research focus from clinical psychology to nutritional neuroscience upon discovering nutrition’s critical role in mental wellbeing while completing her Masters. Delia’s research into female stress has been published in several peer-reviewed journals, she is a regular featured expert in the media and her two internationally available books are available in four languages.
Using her background in psychology, combined with evidence-based nutritional neuroscience, and neurological perspectives, Delia supports behaviour change and stress resiliency within corporates, and for individuals who want to optimize their brain health, via online courses, workshops and tailored events internationally.
Find Delia at www.lby.life