The Stress and Diet Connection: Does Stress Lead to Overeating?
Anxiety and stress can transform several aspects of your life, making it more difficult to work, focus, and enjoy life.
So it may not surprise you to know that when many Americans are stressed, they tend to turn to food for comfort, and the resulting anxiety can cause overeating. Certainly, the past several years with the lockdown/pandemic have been very anxiety and stress-provoking times.
But what is at the heart of the stress and diet connection, and why do many tend to overeat when under pressure?
The Stress and Diet Connection: How Does Stress Affect Your Diet?
Stress triggers your “fight or flight” response. This prompts your body to release hormones, including cortisol, that work overtime to ensure plenty of blood and oxygen make it to your cells. The result is a faster heart rate and mental alertness. The hypothalamus—a small section of your brain—causes this chain reaction.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, these hormones remain elevated as long as the stress continues. If stress lingers, the “fight or flight” response continues. This increases your risk of health problems such as:
- Weight gain
- GI issues such as heartburn or diarrhea
- High blood pressure
- Muscular pain
Next, we’ll look at the stress and diet connection in regard to the food cravings prolonged stress may give you.
Food Cravings As Part of the Stress and Diet Connection
There’s a reason they are called “comfort foods.” When you’re under stress, you may crave unhealthy snacks due to the greater demand on the body for energy and nutrients under the “fight or flight” situation. This includes highly processed sweets that are high in calories and fat.
But it goes beyond mere eating—those who are under constant stress have difficulty finding time or motivation to create healthy meals—in fact, they may often skip meals.
Even interrupted sleep patterns can cause overeating or craving unhealthy snacks. Those under stress often have problems falling asleep or staying asleep, which leads to daytime drowsiness. This, in turn, causes people to seek out foods loaded with caffeine and sugar.
Overeating or eating unhealthy foods may even be used to distract from the stressors of life.
How Does the Stress and Diet Connection Affect Americans?
Information from the American Psychological Association paints a picture indicating that stress has an extensive effect on many adults.
An estimated 38% of American adults admit to overeating or eating unhealthy foods directly due to stress. Around half of those report engaging in those behaviors once a week or, in some cases, even more.
Twenty-seven percent say they eat to manage stress, and 30% state that eating to manage stress has become an unwelcome habit.
But after overindulging, almost half feel disappointed or frustrated with themselves, with another 36% saying they feel sluggish.
Solutions to the Negative Impacts of the Stress and Diet Connection
While stress eating can be a serious problem, there are effective solutions. We encourage you to meet with our dietitian, Nicole Matala who can give you a healthy eating plan where you’ll be fully satisfied without having to sacrifice flavor. You may be surprised how delicious a nutritious meal is!
In the meantime, here are 4 useful tips to help you manage the stress and diet connection.
Have nutritious meals prepped and ready
Often, having a healthy snack within easy reach makes all the difference. Have a vegetable tray or salad ready to go when you feel the urge to indulge.
Manage your stress levels
Getting to the root cause of the problem can go a long way toward your physical and mental health. Some ways to manage your stress include:
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Indulging in hobbies you enjoy (even though you may not feel like it at the moment)
If stress progresses to the point that it is impacting your ability to accomplish everyday tasks, then speaking with a licensed counselor or psychologist can help.
We have some additional useful tips in our blog on how to relieve anxiety.
Avoid skipping meals
Even if you don’t feel like eating, a light, healthy snack can help you feel satisfied and make you less likely to overeat later.
Practice mindful eating
It’s far too easy to indulge in a bag of chips during a Netflix binge. Be aware of what you are eating and chew slowly to fully savor and taste your food.
Cary Medical Group Is Your Partner For a Healthier Lifestyle
We don’t just want to treat you when you’re sick; we want to help ensure you’re living the healthiest life possible. A big part of that is managing anxiety, because the stress and diet connection can affect all aspects of your well-being.
We encourage you to schedule an appointment with us so we can work together to create a strategy to help you manage your stress and, if you tend to overeat, help you discover better alternatives.
For more than 25 years, Cary Medical Group has served as the Triangle area’s premier internal medicine provider. We tailor our treatments to provide the finest personalized health care available for each stage of your adult life. Contact us to schedule an appointment.