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 Stress and Eating


Lt Col Reynolds
The relationship between stress and bad eating habits — both undereating and overeating — has been shown in many studies. And, in the case of overeating, a tendency to consume foods that are high in sugar and fat has also been shown to be a response to stress. Dr. Bethea, what can you tell us about the relationship between stress and food?

Dr. Bethea
Unfortunately, Dr. Reynolds, it’s not unusual for all of us to experience stress at one time or another. It’s actually a normal and healthy reaction to changes or to life’s challenges. But stress that goes on for more than a few weeks can have a negative impact on a person’s health. It’s important to manage stress by learning healthy ways to keep it under control.

The first step in managing stress is recognizing it in your life. People feel stress in different ways including anger, irritability, sleep loss, and physical distress such as headaches or upset stomachs. It’s important for people to know what their signs of stress are, identify signals to look for, and then take steps to manage that stress.

It’s also important to recognize the situations that increase stress, called stressors. These can include family, work, relationships, money, or health problems. Understanding where stress is coming from is an important step for finding ways to deal with stressors.

Many of us deal with stress in negative ways, such as eating unhealthy foods or drinking too much alcohol. Some people who are overweight or obese tend to overeat — or “stress eat” — during stressful times, which only adds to the problem. Setting up healthy home and work environments is one step that can help reduce stress eating.

Try following these tips:

  • Take inventory of your refrigerator and cupboards.
  • Do not have foods around that are high in sugar, fat, and calories. If you don’t have junk foods available, you won’t eat them.
  • Keep unprocessed, low-calorie, low-fat foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, hummus, and unbuttered popcorn available for munching.
  • Before going to the grocery store, heading to a restaurant, or calling for pizza delivery, take a break, maybe go for a walk, and wait until your emotions are in check.
  • The next time you reach for comfort food, ask yourself if you’re really hungry. If not, try to identify what emotions you are feeling.
  • Keep a food diary — a written record of what, how much, and when you eat. This can help you see patterns in your binge eating and connections between mood and food.

For those who feel that their stress is out of control or leading to destructive behaviors such as binge eating, there are a variety of helpful resources available to provide counseling and suggestions for stress management. Most healthcare providers can refer patients to the appropriate local resources.