We don’t always eat because we are hungry (surprise!). Sometimes we eat as a coping mechanism; when we are seeking other release from food besides sustenance or pure enjoyment; when we want as a quick pick-me-up from boredom, anger, or depression, etc.
Some call it emotional eating.
It is not as sinful or shameful of a thing as many make it out to be. In fact it can be a useful stress management tool. Where it becomes unhealthy is when it is your ONLY tool.
I am getting ahead of myself…
Let’s talk about stress. What is it?
Stress, as it pertains to the body, is the mental and emotional response to a percieved threat, both of which trigger a physical response.
It is not innately a bad thing, in fact, the biological response to our sense of a treat is a good thing. It helps give us immediate clarity and energy to “deal with” the stressor, whether it be a bout of exercise, a looming exam, or your car buried in snow when you are late for work.
Not everyone responds to the same stressors, nor do we respond in the same ways. In this way stress is a unique experience that you can learn from and influence, to a degree.
There are two levels to the stress response, acute, or short term, and chronic, or long term. Acute stress is the most beneficial to our survival as humans while chronic stress is where we tend to see, and feel, the negative effects.
The mental response of stress on the body
Acute: Feeling instantly alert, wired, atune to emotions (adrenaline).
Chronic: Fatigued, irritated, depressed, anxious, decreased interest] in physical activity.
The physical response of stress on the body
Acute: Racing heart rate, increased blood pressure, release of blood sugar into the blood, immune system reves up and breathing often quickens.
Chronic: Increased appetite, increased fat storage. Inflammation across multiple body systems, high blood pressure, digestive issues, sleep disturbance… overall distribution of homeostasis which can manifest in a variety of ways.
Back to food…
Not surprisingly, we tend to not like the chronic responses to stress and therefore we seek solace. An easy, tasty, go to for this is food. Food- sugar, salt, and fat in particular- release their own set of hormone responses that make us feel good! These endorphins give us a happy kick and we can forget out troubles.
The bummer is it doesn’t last, and if chronic stress is involved those uncomfortable feelings will return, often triggering the desire to eat again.
I believe it goes without saying that the over use of food to combat ill emotions can become unhealthy. As lightly mentioned above, we tend to choose more energy dense foods in the sugar, salt and fat categories when we are eating for comfort, as they give a larger punch of endorphin release. If we are already eating outside of hunger then there is more chance that our metabolic system, or digestion and use of food, will be thrown out of wack. Contributing to the negative long term physical affects of chronic stress. A double whammy.
So, if you choose to use food as an outlet do so with realistic expectations to its “powers” and use it with caution.
It is inevitable that we will encounter stressors in our lives on an ongoing basis. Therefore the ticket is to have healthy outlets to combat them. These can properly be titled relaxation techniques, as the body can not be truly relaxed without inhibiting the stress response. There are two categories for “keeping calm”, in the moment upon feeling the stressor, and preventative, as a way to train the body to head off negative responses to stressors in the first place.
In the moment…
- Laughter log
- Pet the cat
- Walk the dog
- Read a book
- Set up a punching bag in the garage
- Check out others Stress-Be-Gone
- Set a bedtime routine without electronics
- Go to bed when you are tired
- Take naps
- Plan vacations
- Find a hobby, or two
Keep calm and eat on…
Listen to your body, eat, enjoy, learn and repeat.