Whenever you’re stressed at work or school, do you ever catch yourself reaching for a bag of chips or candy? Or are you ever so lost in your work that you don’t realize you’re snacking? On this episode of Serving Up Science, science writer Sheril Kirshenbaum and WKAR’s Karel Vega discuss stress eating with student reporter Amanda Barberena.
College students Carson Gates, Cameron Daniels, Mingyu Jin and Tre’Von Morgan were all eating lunch at Case Hall cafeteria at Michigan State University. All except one engages in stress eating. They attribute their stress primarily to school, sports and work. And most of the foods mentioned are considered “comfort foods.”
These sugary and fatty foods negatively impact the body, especially when eaten in large amounts. It can lead to weight gain among other negative health effects. Those who are stressed typically show symptoms of fatigue, irritability, lack of motivation, headaches, and feeling nervous, anxious, depressed and sad.
A common misconception is that stress suppresses hunger, but that’s only for a short period of time. Here’s how it works:
When someone experiences a quick burst of stress, the kidneys release the hormone epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline. This extra energy triggers the body’s fight or flight response, which makes hunger less of a priority. But this only temporary. Once the acute stress is over, the feeling of hunger rebounds and there’s a flood of relief and with it, a desire to eat.
Now, if someone is constantly stressed, the body switches from producing adrenaline to cortisol. This increases motivation, which sounds good, but it also increases the motivation to eat.
This is where comfort foods come into play.
Dr. Ashley Gearhardt is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. She is also the director of the food and addiction science treatment lab. She said stress can unconsciously trigger the desire to eat… usually junk food.
“If there’s a treat in the kitchen or the vending machine down the hall where you often get a sweet treat, it takes a certain level of inhibition - of willpower to kind of prevent ourselves from eating that tasty, rewarding thing. And when we’re stressed out, it actually reduces the ability of the inhibitory control systems in our brain to work as effectively.”
The stress hormones also directly activate the brain’s reward system, making it more reactive and responsive. A combination of these triggers make it easier to indulge in stress eating.
But this is only a temporary fix, and it’s a concern when it becomes a habit. Typically, once people begin eating comfort foods, they tend to feel guilty about it, which causes them stress, therefore causing them to stress eat again. It becomes a difficult cycle to break.
However, Gearhardt said it’s okay to indulge in stress eating every so often. She relates it to drinking alcohol, which is another temporary, and sometimes dangerous, solution for stress.
“Now importantly, it’s kind of like a glass of wine. Every once in a while, if somebody comes home and they have a glass of wine after a stressful day or a beer, not a big deal. But if every time somebody is stressed, they drink way more than they intended, and they’re drinking to a point where their health or psychological well-being is at risk, then we want to deal with that.”
Most times, stress eating occurs at the end of the day, when someone is exhausted and their willpower is depleted. Experts recommend meditation, exercise and keeping the kitchen stocked with healthy food options. Even a seven minute, high intensity work-out can help deplete stress and make someone feel better overall.
But Gearhardt understands that some activities, as nice as they sound, still take a lot of effort.
“If you’re really having a rough day, and setting up yourself to say, ‘okay I’m going to do two hours of journaling or I’m going to do a deep meditation.’ That sounds really nice, but be honest with yourself about whether you’re going to do it. And sometimes the way to decompress and be kind to yourself is to toss something on the TV that seems mindless.”
By doing something relaxing that takes someone's full attention, it distracts from stress eating. A common misconception about junk food is that people think these fatty, sugary comfort foods decrease stress, but healthy foods have actually proven more successful.
There are some foods that help tame stress and the feeling of boredom or hunger. Warm oatmeal boosts levels of serotonin, which is a calming chemical in the brain. Complex carbs, like whole-grain breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals, also release serotonin. They also take longer to digest and they stabilize blood sugar levels.
It can be hard to jump from high fatty and sugary foods to healthy foods so quickly, so researchers suggest beginning with low-calorie versions of favorite comfort foods and slowly switching to healthier options.
When someone is stressed, it seems like they’re going to be stressed forever. But Gearhardt found that
most high intensity stress only lasts a few minutes. She suggested setting a timer and trying to ride it out.
"There’s even some evidence that playing Tetris for a few minutes can kind of reset the system. If you can just do that for a few minutes, and then just check back in with yourself, you’ll find that the stress periods don’t last as long as you think they’re going to be.”
Everyone stresses, but it’s important to catch your stress throughout the day and find healthy ways to cope with it. Like Gearhardt said, check in with yourself, and try to reach for a tasty, healthy snack next time you find yourself stress eating.