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Are you stress eating? How to spot and prevent this habit

If stress sends you straight to the bottom of a tub of ice cream, here are some tips to help you combat emotional eating.
Eating disorder concept
Is the news stressing you out? That may be why you're mindlessly munching while you tune in.happy_lark / Getty Images / iStockphoto
/ Source: TODAY

If you've recently found yourself half way through a box of sugary cereal before realizing you weren't even hungry, you're not alone.

For many of us, eating based solely on hunger is a rare occurrence. Most people have been hit hard at one time or another (or very often) with emotional eating, which is similar to cravings with its own complexity.

To put it simply, emotional eating is when you eat specifically due to your emotions and feelings — rather than due to hunger. Both positive and negative emotions can alter eating behaviors in different ways, for different people.

And right now there are no shortage of negative emotions sending us in search of solace at the bottom of a tub of ice cream. You may find yourself nervously munching while watching the news or making one too many unnecessary trips to the fridge simply to break up the monotony of working from home during the pandemic.

Research has shown that stress can increase levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone, released from the stomach), which stimulates the release of of dopamine in the brain (signaling the body that it wants to eat). So when you’re feeling stressed, you have a stronger appetite and greater desire to seek out food. How you control your response to stress can help prevent overeating (or eating at all).

These are a few common triggers to be aware of and tips on how to control them:

1. Not listening to your body

One of the biggest causes of overeating due to stress is simply not recognizing that you are stressed. In other words, you’re not eating mindfully.

One of the best paths to avoiding this type of eating is to get in touch with your hunger quotient. This is a tough task at first, but learning to understand how truly hungry you are can be super important to controlling your eating due to stress.

Ask yourself: How hungry am I? And rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being that you're so full you need to unbutton your pants, and 10 that you're so hungry you might pass out. Your goal should be to keep your hungry between a 4 and a 6 at any given time. You do not want to be starving or stuffed.

2. Lack of sleep

Sleep affects almost all aspects of your life and health. Proper sleep is critical for stress management, weight maintenance and overall health. A sleep deficit can cause disruptions in the hormones cortisol, ghrelin and leptin, causing you to eat more.

Aside from daytime sleepiness, studies show that lack of sleep increases anxiety symptoms, depressed mood and alcohol use. So to avoid stress eating and reduce how you react to stress over all, get more zzz’s.

3. Being overworked

Big presentation at work? Boss coming down on you hard? Having a hard time logging off at night? This is a huge stress-eating trigger for many people. Stress increases the hormone cortisol which causes you to be hungrier and crave the worst kind of carbs. This is why many people come home after a long day and reach for the frozen pizza or leftover chicken fried rice. If this is you, break the habit by creating a better routine.

Take off your shoes, change your clothes, have a glass of water and reach for the ingredients to make the healthy dinner that you’ve now had time to prep and plan. This allows you time to decompress and evaluate your true hunger level, while also making more conscious decisions after having a few minutes to relax.

The foods that you eat when you eat emotionally can also put added stress on the body, and cause you to crave even more junk. Here are a few examples:

1. Coffee

Brewing another pot of coffee may be our go-to tactic to combat the fatigue that sets in mid-afternoon, but caffeine acts as a stimulant, which can cause jumpiness and nervousness in some people. Caffeine has also been found to have an effect on cortisol. The release of this hormone narrows your arteries and increases heart rate, can induce food cravings (specifically carbohydrates) and fat storage. If you don’t want to ditch the java, just keep tight tabs on how much you’re consuming. And consider sipping a mug of decaf tea in the afternoon instead.

2. "Sugar-free" foods

Think cookies, candy and diet soda. These items (in addition to many others), are loaded with an artificial sweetener that can actually increase stress in your body. Not only that, but when you’re stressed, it leaves you craving this junk food even more. Aspartame (the zero-calorie sweetener you often find in that little blue packet) is made partially of a compound known as phenylalanine, which has an effect on the brain's levels of norepinephrine, commonly referred to as the "stress hormone."

3. Baked goods

Many of us turn to Betty Crocker for a little therapy. But the types of baked goods you indulge in make a big difference. White flour is processed and stripped of all the nutrient goodness found in whole grains. This is why bread products made from white flour are known as simple carbohydrates. They’re easily broken down and cause a spike in blood sugar, which in turn increases cortisol. This causes an inflammatory response, which over time can contribute to chronic inflammation, and cause food cravings. Instead, bake your own whole-grain varieties, like these Sweet and Tart Cranberry-Orange Muffins, to fill that comfort-food craving the healthy way.