‘Stress eating’ is a phrase with a lot of truth behind it. The effects of sugary ‘comfort foods’, and stress and the hormones released by it, cause people to overeat. Roughly 1 in every 4 people have rated his/her level of stress as at least 8, on a scale of 10, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association. While researchers have linked weight gain to stress, stress is known to kill appetite in the short term as it causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline (Epinephrine). This adrenaline triggers the fight-or-flight response of the body, which is a physiological state that puts a hold on eating temporarily.
However, if the stress continues, another hormone called cortisol is released by the adrenaline glands. The cortisol hormone is generally responsible for building up motivation, this includes the motivation to eat and thus increases appetite. The levels of cortisol should ideally fall once the stressful episode has ended. Although this may not happen if the stress does not go away, and the person’s stress response is stuck at ‘on’.
The resulting weight gain due to stress eating can also depend on the amount of cortisol produced by an individual’s body in response to the stress. The hormone pushes fat to store in the abdominal area.
Why do people overeat during stress?
Several studies have revealed that emotional or physical distress results in increased consumption of food products that are high in carbohydrates. They are called ‘comfort’ foods in the literal sense of the phrase. Weight gain during stress is not only because of overeating, but also because people that are stressed tend to drink more alcohol, exercise less, and lose quality sleep.
Relieving stress without overeating:
- Social support: Family, friends, and other social circles have a buffering effect on stress. People that work in a stressful environment, like an emergency department of a hospital, for example, have much better mental health with suitable social support.
- Meditation: Numerous studies have shown that stress can be reduced by meditation. It can also help people be more aware of the food choices they make.
- Exercise: Exercise can help dull some of the adverse effects of stress, while the levels of cortisol vary with the duration and intensity of exercise.
- Diet: Sugar doesn’t solve stress. It only gives you a temporary high! Besides it makes us lose portion control. Carbohydrate foods release glucose after digestion and glucose is low on satiety compared to protein and fat. This impairs signalling and the brain registers that you are full a lot later. Choose foods high in protein, fibre and fat e.g., eggs, yoghurt, cheese, nuts that will help you stay full and lean. They are also anti-inflammatory and help the body cope better with stress.
- Vitamins: Levels are depleted during periods of high stress, and this can impair immunity. Stock up well. Consult an expert for the right kind and number of supplements, especially if you are on medications.
~ Authored by Alifia Mala, Sports Nutritionist, Mind Your Fitness!