Eating And Stress
Written by Devika Sharma, Registered Dietitian, Surrey Memorial Hospital

Health care can be a stressful profession. For some, food becomes a way to cope in the moment. But in the long term, it won’t help. Tips to de-stress without derailing your health.

In today’s busy world, when we’re expected to balance work life, household responsibilities, live a healthy lifestyle, and manage other life challenges, it’s not surprising we become overwhelmed and stressed. It’s also not uncommon for individuals to use food as comfort.

Stress eating may feel good in the moment, but in the long run, it won’t help. The problem arises when food is no longer viewed as a nutritious substance required by the body to sustain life, but as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable emotions and unmet needs associated with stress.

There are psychological and physiological reasons why many of us don’t reach for nutritious foods when we are stressed, but crave high-fat, high-calorie food such as chocolate, cookies and ice cream. That’s because stress releases increased cortisol, which is one of the primary hormones responsible for causing a heightened appetite. Cortisol, along with other hormones, is responsible for an increased desire for sweet and salty foods, which can lead to undesired stress-induced weight gain.

So now that you understand the physical reasons you crave chocolate on stressful afternoons, what can you do to break the stress-eating cycle? While individual triggers may be different, everyone can apply a three-step approach to develop healthier eating habits associated with stress: spot the problem, get the facts, and seek support.

Here are some effective strategies that I recommend to clients for curbing stress eating:

  • Engage in mindful eating to allow for the body-brain connection. Use your five senses  to become fully aware of what and how much food you are consuming.
  • Don’t skip meals! Consuming three or more smaller, well-balanced meals helps with blood sugar control and lowers the chance of choosing high-fat, high-calorie convenience foods. 
  • Include tried and tested superfoods which keep you full (i.e. whole grains, leafy green vegetables, berries, legumes, fish, nuts) in your diet.
  • Make healthier food options accessible and available at all times.
  • Drink adequate amounts of fluid (9-12 cups daily) with water being the primary source.
  • Limit coffee to 2-3 cups daily (400mg caffeine per day). Excessive caffeine intake can interrupt sleep, which increases levels of cortisol.
  • Get enough shut-eye! Insufficient sleep can impact appetite regulating hormones, which may influence dietary choices.
  • Engage in non-food related activities to help lower stress (going for a walk, exercising, meditation, listening to music, taking a nap, reading, socializing with friends).
  • Be kind to yourself. There is a reason behind the stress that is causing emotional eating.

Read more of this article on our Newsroom, where we also feature a revamped cookie recipie you can use when you crave carbs or sweets but want a healthier option: Choco-banana Flaxseed Cookies.

Find more nutrition advice from Devika on her blog at Onemorebite.ca, on Facebook at OneMoreBite, and on Twitter at @one_more_bite_.


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