We have all heard of (and have likely experienced) the phenomenon of stress eating. But why is it that some people can go through a whole day without even thinking about food and then come home starving? Roughly 40% of people will eat more while stressed, 40% will eat less, and about 20% of people don’t change their eating at all. Being aware of how stress affects your appetite (and the factors that affect your stress) is very important to your overall health.
What is happening in your body
During periods of short-term stress, noradrenaline and epinephrine are released and the fight or flight reaction occurs: blood pressure and heart rate increases, sugars are released from the liver, and blood is directed to the muscles, heart, and brain and away from the digestive system. Food intake and digestion are shut off, resulting in suppression of appetite. So if it’s a busy day at work, deadlines are approaching and the phone won’t stop ringing, your body will perceive that as a short-term stress and elicit the appropriate actions to get you through that day. You may be so busy that you hardly notice your appetite at all. Besides that, taking a lunch break will not help you get through your to-do list.
But what happens when you leave work and walk in the door at home? Your appetite that was mysteriously MIA all day now sweeps in with a vengeance. Noradrenaline can suppress appetite, but cortisol that is released during stress may stimulate appetite during recovery from stress. As soon as your metabolism is triggered from an intake of food, it may result in a ravenous appetite that feels uncontrollable at the end of the day. And likely you are not craving broccoli. The foods eaten during times of stress typically favor those of high fat and/or sugar content.
As a one-off, we may brush past this phenomenon. But what happens if it occurs on a daily basis? Those under chronic stress tend to prefer energy-dense foods high in sugar and fat. Humans turn to comfort foods such as fast food, snacks, and calorie-dense foods even when we are not hungry and have no real need for increased calories (we’re not running for our lives from a saber-toothed tiger).
When we’re stressed (and stressed all the time), we’re looking for something to help us feel good. Stressors in our lives can ultimately lead to less dopamine (that feel good hormone) pathways occurring in our brain. Research shows that high fat diets may cause these pathways to become more sensitive, so more dopamine is released, which is obviously going to increase our cravings and desire for the high fat foods. Eventually, if we continue to stimulate that pathway, the brain will remember and our actions that once felt like choices will become more like compulsive behaviours. Our brain flips from a state of control and reflection to a state of survival, resulting in a strong drive to eat and an impaired ability to stop.
Food for Fuel
The irony is that the foods that help us feel full and satisfied are typically high in fibre and protein. This is often our whole grains, vegetables, and lean protein source. Again, not typically the foods we crave or turn to for pleasure. When we eat foods high in sugar and fat, we really aren’t satisfying the body’s underlying requirements. Our blood sugars spike and crash, leaving us feeling tired and moody, and ready for another “boost” from our favourite treat food.
What can we do?
We often cannot control the stress that is present in our lives. We really can only control how we respond to it. Stress management and fueling your body well throughout the day are two very important factors for managing weight and preventing chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Even if your appetite does not seem present throughout the day, take the time to fuel your body every 2-3 hours. This will help prevent spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels and actually give your body the nutrients it needs to get you through your stressful day. Your appetite will not be ravenous coming home, and your risk of overeating in the evening will decrease substantially.
Practice simple stress management techniques at work. We are trying to decrease the levels of your fight or flight hormones, including cortisol. Breathing techniques, stretching, going for a walk at lunch, listening to relaxing music, or practicing gratitude are all very simple strategies to bring down your heart rate and blood pressure and signal to your body that this is not an emergency.
Find things that bring you joy. It’s okay if food is one of them, but if the brain learns that eating the treat food is the main way to release dopamine, your desire for that food will become very strong. Fuel the body and eat balanced to ensure it’s getting all the nutrients it needs, and then find other ways to release those feel good hormones. Exercise has been proven to be one of the most affective anti-depressants, so even if it’s something small every day, your body will thank you!
The link between nutrition and stress is very significant, and understanding a little bit about the hormones and pathways in the body is essential to knowing how to best take care of ourselves in a stressful situation.
By Raina Beugelink, Registered Dietitian (Nutritionist)