Do you have a drawer full of snacks by your desk, which you dive into when you’re working on a difficult project? You’re likely stress eating.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we learn how some people have a ‘stash’ of high-calorie foods that they indulge in when stressed, while others lose their appetite, and still others don’t change their eating habits at all.
According to a May 2023 report in the National Geographic, stress affects individuals differently. It depends on our behavioural, environmental and genetic factors. Those of us who ‘stress eat’, though, may be people with a high dietary restraint – those who tend to limit food intake to manage their weight. In times of stress, such people are more likely to throw caution to the wind.
Another factor that may cause us to eat when stressed is a passive or avoidant coping style, according to a May 2017 study in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity.
Unfortunately, eating when stressed can create a cycle that’s difficult to break away from. Consuming sweet or starchy foods, for instance, raises the level of feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine in the brain – so, it feels like a reward. However, a January 2023 study in the journal Appetite found that ‘emotional eaters’ often experience a reduction in the activation of the reward circuitry of the brain. So, over time, the brain signals to the body that it needs more high-fat, high-sugar foods to get a reward response, creating a vicious cycle of overeating.
So, how can we break this terrible habit?
According to the National Geographic report, the first step is to recognise the pattern, and identify what triggers our sudden craving for high-fat foods. Next, distract yourself with an alternative activity. By asking yourself what you can do instead of eating, you could find yourself engaging in something more productive, like socialising with a friend, reading a book, or going for a walk.
It's also worth getting rid of high-sugar foods at home or work, so that the source of temptation is removed, and you’re forced to cultivate better coping strategies.
A final, important way to deal with mindless snacking is to stop giving yourself grief over it. Instead, treat yourself with kindness, as you would a friend. A June 2022 study in the International Journal of Behavioural Medicine found that self-compassion improved people’s dietary choices after a stressful experience.