Last week we discussed how this global pandemic has taken a toll on American’s waistlines. Roughly 60% of people surveyed on WebMD mentioned stress eating as a reason for weight gain.1 This is totally understandable. In addition to the fear of catching COVID19 or dealing with job loss or change, some people endure the added stress of having kids return to school, return remotely, OR having to find childcare for their children. Other families may be dealing with children going off to college, or taking care of, or not being able to visit their elderly parents. It’s enough to send anyone to the freezer for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Why we overeat
Experts have a few theories on why people eat when they’re stressed. Anxiety and stress result in the release of a hormone called cortisol, which impacts appetite. High cortisol levels related to stress increase appetite and cravings for traditional comfort foods high in sugar and fat, which is why chips, baked goods, and ice cream may appear so tempting. Grehlin, a hormone which is produced in the stomach, is also impacted and can increase the urge to overeat.2
The other thing to consider is that eating gives us pleasure and may help us relax. Psychologists have linked anxiety and overeating for years. Since feeling tense, afraid, worried, and anxious are uncomfortable, eating is often used as a coping mechanism. Food may be used to reduce, numb, distract, soothe, avoid, or mask anxiety. 3
While the stressors of the world will come and go, it’s our reactions to stress that makes us resilient. We all experience stress and anxiety differently, but a few coping mechanisms may help to reduce stress hormones that spur us to overeat.
- Get adequate sleep. We need regular sleep to calm our brains and restore our bodies. Adequate sleep (between 7 to 8 hours per night) regulates mood, improves concentration, and strengthens decision-making capability. It also keeps cortisol levels in check, which impact appetite.
- Recognize hunger. When the urge to eat hits because you’re upset or anxious, stop and ask yourself if you’re even hungry. If not, find something positive to do. Clean out a closet, call a friend, paint your nails. Get out of the kitchen. Eat when you're hungry, not under stress.
- Don’t forget to breathe. Taking time to stop and breathe may help quiet your mind during stressful times. Meditation allows your body and mind to take a break. It creates a space in your brain to recognize what’s essential and to quiet unnecessary noise. Studies show that meditation reduces stress by triggering your body’s relaxation response. 4
Next week we’ll look at how food impacts your mood!
Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Mona Mohamed Ibrahim Abdalla. Ghrelin – Physiological Functions and Regulation Eur Endocrinol. 2015 Aug; 11(2): 90–95.
- Hayes, S.C., Wilson, K.G., Gifford, E.V., Follette, V.M., & Strosahl, K. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1152-1168.
- Saeed SA, Cunningham K, Bloch RM. Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation. Am Fam Physician. 2019;99(10):620-627.
Download a Stress Eating Handout here: Covid And Stress Eating Tips
Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and owner of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati. She shares her clinical, culinary, and community nutrition knowledge through cooking demos, teaching, and freelance writing. Lisa is a regular contributor to Food and Health Communications and Today’s Dietitian and is the author of the Healing Gout Cookbook, Complete Thyroid Cookbook, and Heart Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook. Her line of food pun merchandise, Lettuce beet hunger, supports those suffering food insecurity in Cincinnati. For more information, visit her website: https://soundbitesnutrition.com/