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Stress and Emotional Eating

April 5, 2019 by

What is your coping mechanism when you start to feel stressed out? Do you go for a run or maybe take some time to be alone? Or maybe you have a journal that you write in. Or– maybe you reach for a few glasses of wine that night.

Many people choose to turn to food for comfort when they are feeling stressed or upset. But why is this?

Your emotions and food intake both lead to a range of biochemical reactions that have a strong impact on your mind and body. One thing that these two chemical reactions have in common is the neurotransmitter dopamine– which is a key player in every form of addiction, including an addiction to food. Serotonin and cortisol also both play big roles in addiction.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that releases into your body when you feel tense. Cortisol also determines how your body uses macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. If you are experiencing stress and cortisol begins to flood your system, it can make you crave carbohydrates.

Once you allow your body to have these carbs, your brain releases dopamine, which is a chemical that is associated with rewards. Dopamine lets you body know that something good is about to happen, like consuming your favorite food.

Because you get a surge of dopamine when you are eating the foods that you love, you tend to look for that dopamine high on a regular basis, meaning that you will keep eating these foods that are unhealthy.

Emotional eating is driven by stress and boredom. You may eat when you are bored to give yourself something to do, or you may eat when you are stressed to make yourself feel better. Studies have shown the stress-reducing influence that comfort foods can have on people, proving that foods that are high in calories trigger the accumulation of belly fat, which inhibits the activity in your HPA axis.

Your HPA axis acts as your primary stress response system and connects your nervous system with your endocrine system. If you are used to dealing with your stress by eating foods that are high in calories, you will experience greater visceral fat accumulation, which adjusts your HPA axis activity, and lowers cortisol levels.

This means that when you eat a lot of fattening foods, your stress response is decreased. However, it also leads to the accumulation of fat. Once you allow eating to be associated with feeling better, you are likely to gain weight as you continue to turn to food for comfort.

Foods that are commonly eaten as comfort foods– cake, burgers, pizza, fries, ice cream– these foods are also often associated with celebrations. A lot of your happy memories of holidays and birthdays probably are associated with food in some way. So how do you separate the two?

The key here is to remember the purpose of eating food. You eat to nourish your body and give yourself the fuel that you need to get through the day. You want to feed your body foods that it can use to return the favor and give you energy. This means that if eating is how you cope with stress, it is important to find a new way to cope with your feelings.

When you are craving food or you think you are hungry, take a moment to do some self-analysis and determine if you are really hungry or if you are bored or stressed out. If you just ate an hour ago, your body probably isn’t asking for food again, in which case you need to find another way to meet your personal needs. If you do feel like you are hungry, choose to eat some carrots and hummus or an apple and peanut butter. Not only can your body use these foods, but they will also be digested slowly, so they will keep you full for longer and help keep obesity at bay.

Remember that gaining weight and being depressed sometimes go hand in hand. If you eat to address your depression and you gain weight, it may ultimately be adding to your depression and making you feel worse. This is a cycle that is very difficult to break.

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