Q: I can’t seem to stop stress eating — it makes me feel so much better to have that bowl of ice cream. What makes that happen, and how can I stop it? — Arlene R., Pullman, Wash.
A: There’s a simple explanation for stress eating — but undoing it requires both emotional and physical changes.
The body under stress: Chronic stress may be caused by the pandemic, economic or work-related strains, nagging to-do lists and personal conflicts, but whatever the trigger, it amps up your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol and effects other hormone-related processes. That can cause a cascade of responses that result in a persistent increase in blood pressure, heart rate and, yes, appetite. Stress hormones also depress the release of insulin and promote insulin resistance, boosting blood sugar levels. That can make you eat more, too. Clearly the solution is to change how you manage your stress response.
Step No. 1 is to get daily aerobic exercise. Try a 30-to-60-minute interval walking routine or joining an online exercise class. Multiple studies show it not only lowers levels of stress hormones, it also fights off depression. You may also benefit from dialectical behavior therapy — a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy with principles of mindfulness that is effective in changing eating behaviors.
That brings us to step two: mindful eating during every meal and with every snack. The steps are:
1. Eat more slowly and without distraction.
2. Pay attention to the sensations that food provides — taste, smell, texture and colors — and savor each one with each bite. You’ll take fewer bites and discover the delights of healthier foods.
3. Notice the effect that foods have on your feelings. You may think that your sugary treat is a mood lifter, but we bet you also feel sluggish, tired and grumpy. A seven-year study followed 12,400 folks and found that those who increased their intake of fruits and veggies were happier than folks who didn’t.
Give these steps a try for a month, and you’ll be less stressed and eating more healthfully.
©2021 Michael Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet Oz, M.D.