Is stress eating making you fat?


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Stress; the description given to the feeling of being unable to respond emotionally or physically to real or perceived threats in daily life appears to be widespread in modern society. Long work hours, even longer commutes and more and more demands on precious family time just a few of the variables that leave many of us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of the day.

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In small doses, stress can actually be good for us. Stress gets the blood pumping and improves attention and concentration when it is experienced in small doses. At the other extreme, chronically high levels of stress can impair immune function, mood and well being as individuals feel overwhelmed and out of control in their daily lives.

Different people respond differently to stress. Some become withdrawn, anxious while others compensate with alcohol, drugs and even food. For those who use food for comfort, the link between eating and stress is likely to be formed when we are young.  Crying babies are often soothed with food, when they may instead be looking for touch and attention. While we are no longer babies, no one offers us a carrot when you are frazzled do they?

The issue with using food to help temporarily relieve stress is that we can in turn start to use stress as an excuse to eat poor quality food. Each and every time you feel a little frazzled, stuffing a couple of chocolate biscuits into your mouth, which can translate long term into a couple of extra packets of biscuits a week, under the “emotional eating” umbrella. If such behaviours actually fixed the stress, perhaps there would be no issue, nut in many cases, eating more poor quality, high calorie food, is likely to make the stress and anxiety worse when it comes to eating and weight control long term.

For this reason, if you are going through a stressful period it is worth considering the way you may use food to relieve your stress but more importantly what nutrient dense food choices you may need in your diet to help support your body during particularly stressful periods. Ideally eating regularly, with a balance of good quality carbohydrates and lean proteins will help to regulate your blood glucose levels and ensure you are at your best mentally physically and mentally to deal with stress when it presents. Another simple trick is to be mindful of your use of stimulants such as coffee and cola based drinks. While they may give you a hit of energy, they are also likely to give you a nasty energy lull an hour or so after consuming them, which may too leave you less able to optimally deal with your stress. Aim for no more than 2-3 coffees a day and drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.

As stress places enormous demands on a number of the body’s systems, ensuring your intake of key vitamins and minerals is optimal is too imperative when proactively managing the stress in your life. In particular, the B group vitamins found in wholegrain breads and cereals are crucial for ensuring optimal energy while the minerals iron and zinc will give your body the key nutrients it needs to produce red blood cells. If you are feeling chronically tired, and you know you do not eat as well as you should, taking a multivitamin can ensure that you have an adequate intake of these key nutrients. If the fatigue is continual, it may also be worth taking to a trip to your GP for a routine blood test to ensure everything is alright medically.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to stress and eating is that while the instant reward from consuming food, sweet foods can make us feel momentary better, in most situations the food is unable to solve the underlying issues that is causing the stress or emotional distress. The key to ultimately managing stress based eating is learning to adequately manage the stressor itself. For many of us this means learning to cope better and develop clear strategies for identifying, managing and ultimately reducing the amount of stress in our daily lives. 

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