Why Stress Leads to Overeating (And What to do About it!)

Are you an exhausted parent shuffling kids to and from afterschool activities? A self-employed individual struggling to make ends meet? An underappreciated employee by day and a binge-eating, couch surfer by night? Do you turn to food to fill a void? The truth is, you are not alone. Stress makes us do some pretty wacky things, one of which is overeating. And, as many of you already know, stress-related overeating leads to weight-gain and other health issues.

But, there's a solution to this problem, so don't get even more stressed about stress! Let's explore the top four reasons why stress leads to overeating and what you can do to reverse the stress effect.

1) The Problem: Lack Of Sleep

Have you ever crawled into bed, bone-tired and done with the day, only to find your brain won't shut off? Stress leads to an overactive mind, and an overactive mind has no 'off switch.' When it comes to life, there are heaps of things we can worry about: the kids, the bills, the job... there's no end in sight. According to research, anxiety is the main cause of insomnia. What's the weight-gain connection? The chemicals that control appetite, Leptin and Ghrelin, are disrupted by irregular sleep patterns.

The Sleep Solution: Keep A Journal

Writing can be cathartic for the soul, making it an excellent way to evaluate what is behind your insomnia. In addition, writing before you go to bed can help you let go of the thoughts that are circling your brain. Go ahead and write down everything, from your healthy lifestyle goals to the reason why you're so stressed.

2) The Problem: Hormonal Imbalance

When we refer to hormonal imbalance due to stress, we're talking about the body's 'fight or flight' reaction. In the presence of a threat, such as a Grizzly bear, angry boss or the Christmas credit card bill (ouch!), your brain goes into this 'fight or flight' mode and releases a cocktail of chemicals. It is these very chemicals, cortisol, CRH (Corticotropin-releasing hormone), and adrenaline, that prepares you for a potentially dangerous situation. After such a situation, these chemicals flush out of your system, leaving behind Cortisol, commonly known as the 'stress hormone,' to tell your system that it's now okay to eat. In many people, Cortisol is omnipresent. Hence, the constant urge to eat.

The Hormone Solution: Decrease Stress with Activities

When it comes down to it, you simply need to relax to alter your mood and get out of that 'fight or flight' cycle. Consider things like meeting up with friends, playing with your dog, getting a relaxing massage, or reading a book. Whatever you enjoy and keeps you calm.

3) The Problem: Belly Fat

Storing belly fat was vital in the days of hunters and gatherers when people didn't know when they would have their next meal. Unfortunately, our bodies still function that way. That means, when you overeat, your body thinks it's great that you've found food and stores it, creating "visceral fat" deposits all over the body. Coupled with a sedentary lifestyle and you may be at risk for heart disease, not to mention a host of other health problems.

The Visceral Fat Solution: Exercise

To trigger the release of both mood-enhancing and pain-relieving chemicals, you'll want to opt for high-intensity (HIIT) exercise and resistance training to reduce the build-up of visceral fat. Also, decreased cortisol levels helps to keep weight off as it speeds your metabolism rate so you’ll want to focus on stress-reduction for this issue as well!

4) The Problem: Anxiety

Feeling anxious is a result of an adrenaline spike, which is the response to a 'fight or flight' situation. While anxiety makes some people get up and move, an attempt to rid the body of this stressful feeling, it can lead to "emotional eating" in other individuals. This "emotional eating," also known as "mindless eating," is a state in which people eat without purpose, leading to overeating and weight-gain.

The Stress Solution: Eat Mindfully

Some programs can help you retrain your approach to food, moving away from mindless to mindful eating. Mindful Eating programs help you to relax and redirect your emotions away from eating. Want the intro primer on mindful eating? Check out my Mindful Eating 101 blog post!

Now that you understand why stress leads to overeating, you can assess if your eating patterns fall within one of these problem categories and (hopefully!) use the provided solutions!

Want to go further in getting control of your emotional eating? Contact me to learn about your options!