It’s 2 a.m. You have an exam at 8:30 a.m. and a 10-page paper due at 12:00 p.m. As you jump back and forth between your exam notes and your essay, you find yourself reaching for a packet of chips or a candy bar. By the time you leave the house in the morning, your trash can holds a plethora of wrappers and you don’t feel too well.
Many people stress eat (either consciously or subconsciously) in order to suppress their stress. While this practice may be effective in momentarily reducing the effect of the stressors, they pose a threat to the physical and mental health of the individuals who stress eat.
Data collected by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that 38% of adults either overeat or eat unhealthy food as a result of stress. Of the 38%, 49% stress eat on a weekly basis, and 33% use food as a distraction from stress.
Stress plays a major role in food choices and eating habits. An article published by Harvard Health states that in times of emotional distress or prolonged stress, cortisol (the stress hormone) is released rapidly, which increases appetite and pushes people to reach for food. Additionally, the article also states that individuals often reach for foods that are high in sugar and fat, because these foods “inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions.”
Given the nature of the food most frequently consumed by stress eaters, the physiological consequences of stress eating often include weight gain and obesity. A Psychology Today article also attributes the side effects of stress on stress eating and weight gain. According to the article, stressed out individuals often sleep less and are less mindful, which causes them to reach for “comfort foods” more often than their relaxed counterparts. Additionally, the article states that individuals are more likely to stress eat at night and cites a study by John De Castro, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, which concludes that “food is less satisfying and has less satiety when eaten late at night than during the day, so we are more likely to keep eating” (Greenberg, 2015).
While stress eating may be confused with binge eating, Daniella Emanuel of CNN differentiates them as: “Binge eating is when someone quickly eats an abnormally large amount of food in a short amount of time and feels out of control while doing it, such as downing an entire package of Oreos in a half-hour and then feeling guilty. Stress eating may be impulsive, but it’s not always followed by guilt.”
Although it is not possible to shield ourselves from the stressors in our everyday lives, there are various ways in which our stress can be managed. The Harvard Health article recommends using meditation, exercise, and social support as ways of managing stress (“Why stress causes people to overeat,” n.d.). Additionally, Emanuel suggests swapping out traditional unhealthy comfort foods with healthy alternatives and running errands as a distraction from eating (Emanuel, 2017). So the next time you find yourself juggling five exams, two papers, and a presentation, try doing some squats and reaching for an apple instead of a bag of buttery popcorn.
“About Emotional Eating,” (n.d.). McCallum Place. Retrieved March 4, 2018, from https://www.mccallumplace.com/emotional-eating.html.
Emanuel, D. (2017, August 24). Can eating ever really relieve stress? CNN. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/24/health/stress-eating-explainer/index.html.
Greenberg, M. (2015, December 7). Six Reasons You Indulge in Emotional Eating When Stressed. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201512/six-reasons-you-indulge-in-emotional-eating-when-stressed.
“Why stress causes people to overeat,” (n.d.). Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved March 4, 2018, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat