Louise Chang, MD
You just found out that your glowing engine light means another repair bill. That will strain your checking account, which you’ve already been juggling like a circus performer.
The repair shop vending machine stands nearby, offering sweet, fatty, crunchy and salty snacks. You make your choice, hoping to banish worry with high-calorie help, even though you’re not really hungry.
Yet a candy bar or bag of chips gives only a momentary boost to sagging spirits. Refined sugars and starches in most packaged snack foods “make you feel better for a minute, then worse,” says Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, director of wellness programs and strategies at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
When you feel tense, stress eating or emotional eating seem to be triggered like an automatic response. That’s especially so if your body reacts strongly to stress-released hormones. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan showed that when levels of the stress hormone cortisol, were boosted in healthy, non-stressed adults, they ate more snack foods.
Indeed, stress may increase your desire for doughnuts, ice cream, and other high-fat or sugary foods. You also are likely to eat fewer regular meals and fewer vegetables. That may be why you grab a handful of cookies during stressful moments instead of healthy snacks such as baby carrots or a few almonds. Not surprising, then, that stress eaters gain weight more often than those who aren’t stress eaters.
"Emotional or stress eating soon becomes a habit that changes how you eat regularly," Thayer says. Healthy eating and good nutrition disappear as your daily meal plan starts looking like the menu for a Cub Scout sleepover.
“The food drives your behavior and your behavior drives your food choice,” says Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, a specialist in nutrition and human performance and author of The Good Mood Diet. “You are stuck until you put your foot down.”
You can break the stress eating cycle and enjoy a healthful diet, even if difficult times continue, with these effective ideas:
Instead of eating, try one of the solutions mentioned above. Add it to your action choices if it works or try a different one next time. By finding healthier alternatives, you’ll feel more in control. Then you’ll be more prepared for the next step: “You have to figure out what’s causing the stress and work to alleviate that,” Thayer says.
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