In our high-paced, modern lifestyle it’s easy to fall susceptible to stress eating since food provides pleasure and escape from the struggles of everyday life. In fact, research shows that the human body is physiologically predisposed to seek out high-calorie “comfort” foods when we are under stress.
For example, when things are coming at us fast and furious, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates our hunger for simple carbs. Eating carbs leads to the release of the hormone insulin, which is a cortisol antagonist, meaning that when insulin goes up, cortisol goes down.
It’s actually a pretty genius way the body has of helping to protect you from being overwhelmed with stress. Carb cravings are a protective mechanism to help moderate cortisol release and keep your experience of stress from getting out of control.
Stress increases appetite and food intake as well. Studies show that when cortisol is elevated your brain’s sensitivity to food intake is diminished, meaning that you can be eating, but the incoming energy doesn’t register in the brain and has no effect on lowering your hunger. The result is that people who are stressed will overeat without any awareness that they’ve consumed more calories than they need.
Additionally, stress impedes your ability to make rational food choices. Not only will cortisol activate parts of the brain that make you crave pleasurable foods, but goal-oriented parts of your brain shut down. This means that even if you have every intention of eating a healthy meal of salad, salmon, and avocado, you’ll be overwhelmed with a desire for pizza, cake, or some other high-carb delight when stressed.
We can make the impact of stress even worse by skipping meals, not recovering effectively from exercise and eating junk food.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a healthful, delicious dinner planned of salmon with sautéed greens and sweet potatoes, and then after a killer day at work in which you don’t feel hungry at all, you go home and find yourself overwhelmed with a desire to eat crackers and cheese, ice cream, potato chips or all three.
This is cortisol having its effect on your brain and body. Anytime you skip meals, cortisol is released in order to maintain blood sugar. The body senses these elevations in cortisol as a threat and shuts down brain regions that experience hunger along with other unnecessary physiological processes such as protein synthesis. After all, you don’t want to feel hungry when running away from a predator or negotiating a crisis.
Although the immediate effect of stress is to blunt appetite, the chronic effect is the opposite. If you’ve skipped meals all day, by the time you reach dinner, your ability to regulate hunger and make smart food choices will be nonexistent. Have you ever had a stress-filled day and not had much appetite, but then sit down to eat and after a few bites you find you are overwhelmed with hunger? That’s stress having its way with you.
Stress eating appears to be individualized—some people skip meals and then overeat junk food later in the day. Some have night eating syndrome in which they eat the majority of their calories late at night in midnight binges.
Others turn to junk food when they are stressed. The point is to be honest with yourself about how you react to stress and adopt habits that can keep your nutrition healthy. Here are a few suggestions:
Adopt a set meal frequency in which you eat at the same time every day. This will take advantage of your natural biorhythm and help balance metabolic hormones.
Eat 3 to 4 times a day within a 12-hour window in order to keep cortisol and insulin levels in check.
Have your first meal within an hour of waking up.
Plan nutrition around exercise so that you are eating high-quality meals after tough workouts.
Plan what you are going to eat in advance so that you always have nutritious high-protein choices even when the rational part of your brain is shutting down due to stress.
Final Words: If you use it to your advantage, nutrition can be a powerful tool to help you cope with stress and get the lean body you desire.