Even moderate stress can trigger excessive eating
It doesn’t always take devastating news to cause someone to consume a container of ice cream or an entire bag of chips. Instead, a stressful meeting or a difficult conversation can trigger stress eating and researchers think they know why.
In a small study, individuals who were attempting to maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise had their hands held in an ice bath for three minutes to induce moderate stress. They were then shown images of two foods – a tasty, unhealthy option and a less tasty, healthier option.
The results were that the moderately stressed individuals were more likely to choose a food based on its taste rather than its health benefits compared to those who were not stressed.
Researchers said the findings show that stress increases the need for an immediate reward and reduces self-control. Brain scans of the stressed individuals further demonstrated that there was increased connectivity between the areas associated with perceiving taste and reduced connectivity in the areas associated with self-control.
“I believe our culture teaches us to focus on immediate gratification as well as the use of food to cope,” says Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn, clinical psychologist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. “Many of us have learned throughout our lives that certain foods offer comfort. For example, many people have memories of a stressful experience as a child, and someone in our lives offers milk and cookies in an effort to comfort us. ”
To help her patients manage stress eating, Dr. Ronan Woodburn encourages them to be aware of their stress levels so that they can be proactive and cope with stress in a healthy way.
“An important aspect of changing our choices and habits is to disrupt the automatic behaviors or habits to make them and our other options more conscious,” she says. “For example, if someone tends to eat junk food to manage stress, one strategy is to make junk food less accessible and healthier coping strategies more accessible.”
She also encourages people to practice using healthy coping strategies because the more they are practiced, the more likely these will become healthy habits.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these tips for coping:
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
- Exercise on a regular basis
- Get plenty of sleep
- Give yourself a break if you feel stressed out
- Talk to others. Share your problems and how you are feeling a parent, friend, counselor, doctor, or pastor.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol may seem to help with the stress. In the long run, they create additional problems and increase the stress you are already feeling.
- Take a break. If your stress is caused by a national or local event, take breaks from listening to the news stories, which can increase your stress.
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