Globally, the sociopolitical climate has been quite unpredictable. With COVID-19 throwing a huge spanner in the works of everyday living, alongside numerous causes of stress on macro and micro scales, the mere act of daily existence has become quite cumbersome. The toll this has taken on people all over the world is not only evident in the mental health of individuals, but also in their physical health. During this time, social media users have taken to the internet to talk about a plethora of health problems they have encountered, and one issue that is highlighted is the unhealthiness induced due to stress in the form of emotional eating.
Table of contents
- What is emotional eating?
- Emotional hunger versus physical hunger
- What is stress, though?
- Potential triggers
- Getting back on track
- Seeking help
What is emotional eating?
When you resort to food to compensate for any experienced turmoil, that very act counts as emotional eating. Using food as a crutch to help you through a rough patch may start off as a minor bump, but can swiftly avalanche into a habit that must be broken due to long-term risks. As powerful as this stress-induced emotional eating is, you must remember that it is just as harmful and futile.
Emotional eating can be spontaneous, and often carries with it a sense of urgency. It also manifests as one craving specific items that may not be nutritious, but serve as a temporary bandaid on a wound that needs deeper inspection and diagnosis. Not only does this fail to leave you full, but it also leaves behind a sense of guilt and powerlessness, which becomes a slippery slope toward further stress, thereby becoming cyclical in nature.
Emotional hunger versus physical hunger
One vital distinction to make when addressing emotional eating caused by stress is understanding why you’re eating, and what you’re being directed to eat. When your body needs food, it sends signals to your stomach to indicate that you are, in fact, hungry. This is known as physical hunger.
On the other hand, the emotional hunger that follows stress may not always be physiological in nature. It is often psychological and has everything to do with triggers or stimuli that can lead to you reaching for the instant gratification you may not necessarily need.
What is stress, though?
When one hears the word ‘stress,’ they immediately believe that it’s something earth-shatteringly drastic. However, the fact of the matter is that stress is a normal human response to any situation or circumstance that may seem like it is out of one’s control. The human body is designed to feel stress in order to combat situations in which one feels pressurized or threatened. Changing the narrative around stress is pertinent due to how it ties into emotional eating, and how one’s perception of stress can lead to healthier patterns.
The most important thing to note about stress here is the fact that a recent study proved that “perceived stress” is, in fact, positively correlated with emotional eating, with women displaying more perceived stress than men. Moreover, the study showed that long-term problems are extremely likely to arise as a result of the increased dietary intake brought on by emotional eating.
Stress-related triggers that lead to emotional eating can be due to sudden changes, instantaneous reactions, or even learned behavior.
Emotional eating can be linked to your childhood patterns. For instance, being rewarded in the form of food creates a complex relationship with one’s intake, where frequent rewards in the face of accomplishments strengthen this negative correlation. Similarly, if you have been using food as a refuge for when the going gets tough, this pattern carries well into adulthood, where your changing and aging body may not be able to deal with the intake the way it used to.
Social media, and the bombardment of unpleasant news, can create a sense of despair. With innumerable things going wrong, you may feel like nothing is in your control, thereby turning to unhealthy eating habits as a form of solace.
Undoubtedly, financial stress can wreak havoc on the best of us, causing numerous people to spiral. In such cases of stress, you may turn to food, believing that you are turning towards the one constant source of sustenance, when you are, in fact, forging a dangerous relationship with your intake.
Relationship and family problems are massive triggers that impact different people in many ways. Additionally, changes in the validation you receive from loved ones can lead to varying levels of stress.
Contrary to popular belief, while emotional eating due to stress is not categorized as physical hunger, there can be physical factors that contribute to the same. For example, stress-induced high cortisol levels can lead to increased appetite. Physical causes also manifest in the form of cravings for unhealthy sources of food.
Getting back on track
As with all damaging patterns, you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating due to stress. There are numerous ways in which this can be done.
Identify the problem:
Similar to other forms of healing, understanding the root cause becomes imperative while combating emotional eating. Ask all the right questions. Address why you’re stressed, and whether or not mindless eating will help solve the problem and be beneficial in the long run. Adopt a problem-solving approach. If all of that seems overwhelming, simply understand the situation at hand and resolve to commit to small steps that lead you to a bigger goal.
If you do feel the need to reach for food, swap out the snacks that will harm you for food items that are actually nutritious and healthy. For instance, when you’re craving something salty, opt for lightly salted popcorn instead of a grease-filled bag of chips. Snack on fruit instead of your go-to candies. You can even choose sources of food that fight stress, such as dark chocolate, nuts, and vegetables. If you know a highly stressful event is coming up, or you feel yourself slipping, create an emergency snack pack filled with portioned amounts of beneficial food items. The smallest changes can yield promising results.
Maintain a diary:
Noting down quantities of what you eat, and when you’re consuming food can be of great help. Not only will this help you create possible links that can then be worked on, but it will also double as a diary, where you can log how you feel after a snack, and revisit the entry to avoid or chase a certain emotion. The Healthi app, for instance, can double as a valuable food diary, where you can add details of your intake, alongside any additional notes that you may feel are imperative to jot down.
Deal with your stress:
As easy as it is to state this, dealing with stress is a behemoth of a battle. However, with meditation and yoga applications at your fingertips, alongside resources that can help improve your mental health, you can begin to tackle the issue at its root, head-on.
Adopt healthy habits:
If you find yourself reaching for food in times of boredom, or when you’re sitting idle, use that time to do something that positively impacts your body and stress levels. Go for a light jog, converse with a friend, or opt for creative hobbies.
A harmful relationship with food caused by stress is a serious matter. Should you find yourself slipping constantly, or turning to emotional eating more and more, seek professional help immediately.
To conclude, stress ties into emotional eating, and can leave behind an impact that may be hard to curtail.
However, nipping this unfortunate tie is not impossible, and a willingness to create a constructive alliance with stress and food is already a great start. One way to build this alliance is to follow a diet plan customized to your lifestyle. Take the Healthi quiz to learn what kind of diet will suit you.