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Controlling your Stress Eating through the Holidays

by Kevin Rai(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 288 - August 2023

 

You’re not the only one who experiences stress eating during the holidays.

Exposure to stress instigates the release of various hormones, including cortisol (Hormones 101), which plays a substantial role in emotional eating behavior. This stress hormone can alter the functioning of key brain regions involved in stress and eating responses, such as the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala.

During periods of stress, increased cortisol levels can stimulate cravings for energy-dense, comfort foods. This is in part due to its impact on the brain's reward system, enhancing the perceived value or desirability of these foods.

 

Unsplash girl in bathtub holding white ceramic mug

girl in bathtub holding white ceramic mug

Picture Credit: Artem Labunsky  on Unsplash

https://unsplash.com/photos/lp8l7ne4zPg

 

Moreover, chronic stress can interfere with the regular regulation of appetite and eating behaviour, as it can amplify the physiological responses that promote food intake, even in the absence of an energy deficit. This dysregulation can pave the way for emotional eating tendencies, where food serves not just a nutritional role but also a coping mechanism for stress.

In this Article, we cover what Emotional Eating is, why it’s prevalent during the holidays, and share some science-backed tips on how to avoid it.

What Is Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a typical pattern where individuals turn to food as a way to cope with their emotions rather than eating in response to physical hunger. It involves consuming larger amounts of food, often high in calories and associated with "comfort foods," in an attempt to soothe or suppress negative emotions such as sadness, stress, boredom, loneliness, or anxiety.

People often engage in emotional eating due to various factors, including personal and interpersonal stressors, relationship issues, work pressure, financial problems, or even positive events like celebrations. The act of eating becomes intertwined with emotional well-being, as individuals may believe that certain foods will make them feel better or help them manage their emotional state.

However, emotional eating can lead to overeating which can negatively impact your health. It can contribute to weight gain, guilt, shame, and a vicious cycle of emotional distress.

You’re an Emotional Eater if You:

  • Use food as a coping mechanism. Rather than eating for hunger, you often find yourself eating in response to feelings of stress, sadness, boredom, or other emotions;
  • Crave “comfort foods”: You typically crave foods that are high in fat, sugar, or both when you're feeling emotional. These "comfort foods" can provide a temporary feeling of satisfaction or pleasure.

Wait, what are “comfort foods” anyways? "Comfort foods" are typically foods that provide a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone, often reminding them of their home, childhood, or a pleasant experience. (Could be anything like Biscuits and gravy, Pizza, Chocolate, or Ice cream)

Let’s continue …

  • Eat past fullness. Even when you are physically full, you might continue eating if you are dealing with challenging emotions. The desire to eat isn't tied to physical hunger, but rather to your emotional state;
  • Feel guilt or regret after eating. After consuming large amounts of food, you may feel guilty or regretful. These feelings might create a cycle where you eat to suppress these negative emotions, only to feel them again after eating;
  • Often eat alone. Because you may feel embarrassed or ashamed about your eating habits, you might prefer to eat alone;
  • Eat when not hungry. You might find yourself eating when you are not physically hungry but feeling a strong emotional pull toward food.

Causes of Emotional Eating and Its Triggers

Emotional eating is commonly associated with negative emotions like sadness, stress, grief, loneliness, and boredom. However, positive emotions such as self-reward for achieving goals or celebrating special occasions can also trigger emotional eating.

There are several causes and triggers of emotional eating. Causes include a lack of introspective awareness (recognizing one's emotions), alexithymia (difficulty understanding and describing emotions), emotion dysregulation (difficulty managing emotions), restrictive diets, or a history of dieting.

Read: Obesity and Eating Issues

Triggers for emotional eating encompass negative emotions, positive emotions, relationship conflicts, work or other stressors, fatigue, financial pressures, and health problems.

If you struggle with emotional eating, it is important to identify your personal triggers and find healthier ways to cope with your emotions. Ask yourself if you are eating because of hunger or if there are other underlying factors.

Is Holiday Stress a Thing?

Yep!

I know, the holidays are supposed to be when joy and love fill the air, yet paradoxically, stress and anxiety often lurk beneath the surface.

According to a new poll from the US News, 31% of Americans anticipate being more stressed in the 2022 holiday season, representing a 9% increase since 2021.

We create visions of idyllic holiday celebrations, only to be plagued by distress when reality falls short of these lofty ideals. Financial pressures weigh heavily upon us, as gifts, decorations, travel, and hosting parties threaten to empty our pockets. Time becomes a precious commodity, elusive in the face of a bustling social calendar brimming with shopping, cooking, and organizing.

Family dynamics during holidays can be a minefield; unresolved conflicts and strained relationships emerge from the shadows, igniting sparks of tension. If you have lost a loved one, the holiday season can bring feelings such as grief or loneliness back to light.

Overcommitment adds another layer of agony, as we become ensnared in a web of many events, with little time for self-care. And don't forget about the interruption to our routines, the decadent feasts, and the excessive imbibing that can tip the scales of our well-being.

Despite these concerns, there is no reason to fear the holiday season. Holidays do not need to be flawless in order to be joyful and memorable. Maintain reasonable expectations and allow for the possibility that things will not go as planned. This does not mean ignoring the stressors, but rather acknowledging them and taking proactive actions to reduce their influence.

How Stress Influences Our Eating Behaviours

Stress significantly impacts our eating habits, behaviour, and even our metabolic function. Psychological research shows that stress may result in under- or overeating depending on the stress source and stress intensity

As mentioned above; The primary hormone linked with stress, cortisol, can lead to increased appetite, often resulting in overeating. It's not uncommon for stress to interfere with sleep patterns, which in turn can alter the hormones that control appetite, blood sugar, and cravings.

During periods of stress, you might find yourself gravitating towards "comfort foods," typically high in fat and sugar. Unsurprisingly, under the influence of stress, these foods might not satiate you as they usually would. Some people, conversely, may lose their appetite when experiencing acute stress.

Over time, high-stress levels and the subsequent consumption of hyper-palatable foods can lead to changes that promote compulsive behavior. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, glucose metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and other appetite-related hormones may all be affected.

From a neurobiological standpoint, chronic stress can affect various brain regions involved in stress and motivation circuits, leading to an increased preference for, and consumption of, these foods.

A concerning fact is that when people are stressed, their bodies tend to store more fat than when they're relaxed. This propensity, along with the tendency to seek high-calorie, high-fat foods during periods of stress, makes stress a significant contributor to obesity, a condition linked to a range of health issues that can lead to hypertension and heart disease.

A substantial portion of adults report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors due to stress, which often results in unwanted outcomes such as feelings of sluggishness and negative body image. Additionally, about a third of adults who overeat or consume unhealthy foods because of stress state that “they do so to distract themselves from their stressors”.

Stress not only influences our eating habits but also impacts our metabolic function. A study conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Ohio State University College of Medicine has identified a link between the stress hormone cortisol and elevated blood sugar levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Joshua J. Joseph, who led the study, observed that cortisol levels usually fluctuate throughout the day in healthy individuals, peaking in the morning and declining at night. This sustained level of cortisol can impede the control of blood sugar and the management of the disease, emphasizing the need for individuals to find stress reduction methods.

Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger

These two types of hunger are influenced by different factors and satisfy different needs.

Physical Hunger

Physical hunger is what we call ‘True Hunger’ where your body requires additional nutrients & energy to stay functioning. The body will send signals – this can be stomach grumbling or feeling low on energy. Here's what characterizes physical hunger:

  1. Gradual Onset: Physical hunger doesn't suddenly occur; it builds over time.
  2. Open to Options: When you're physically hungry, a wide array of food seems appealing.
  3. Satiety Recognition: Physical hunger ceases once you've eaten enough food to satisfy your body's nutrient needs as there will be a clear sensation of fullness and satisfaction,
  4. No Guilt: Eating to satisfy physical hunger is a necessary bodily function and, therefore, doesn't induce feelings of guilt or shame.
  5. Physical Symptoms: Physical hunger can be associated with symptoms such as stomach growling, low energy, lightheadedness, or irritability.

Emotional Hunger

On the other hand, emotional hunger is driven by emotional needs, not nutritional needs. Stress, sadness, boredom, loneliness, and other emotions can trigger emotional hunger. Here's how emotional hunger differs from physical hunger:

  1. Sudden Onset: Emotional hunger tends to arise abruptly and feels urgent;
  2. Specific Cravings: When you're emotionally hungry, you often crave specific comfort foods (usually high-fat, high-sugar, or high-carb foods), and other options might not seem appealing;
  3. Mindless Eating: Emotional hunger can lead to eating without conscious control or attention, often resulting in overeating. You basically need to have Aligned Thinking for Optimum Health;
  4. Unsatisfied by Fullness: Emotional eating often doesn't stop once you're full. You may find yourself continuing to eat even though you're no longer hungry, seeking to fulfill an emotional rather than physical need;
  5. Guilt or Shame: Emotional hunger often leads to feelings of guilt or shame after eating, particularly if you ate more than you believe you should have.

The underlying mechanisms of emotional hunger are complex and can involve various neurobiological systems. For instance, chronic stress can lead to overactivity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, resulting in excessive cortisol release, which can increase cravings for hyper-palatable foods. Simultaneously, stress and negative emotions can influence the reward center in the brain, which may lead to increased food intake as a form of self-soothing.

Tips for Identifying and Managing Holiday Stress Cravings

Here are the most practical and result-oriented tips for identifying and managing holiday stress cravings:

  1. Prioritize Natural Over Processed Foods. Cultivate a preference for natural and fresh ingredients over processed foods. A well-nourished gut has been linked to improved overall health and well-being, and by opting for fresh, nutrient-rich foods, you can better control unnecessary cravings. For instance, a study from the National Library of Medicine showed that increased consumption of processed foods is associated with a higher risk of obesity and other health complications;
  2. Preemptive Snacking Can Curb Overeating. To mitigate the chances of overindulgence, eat a balanced snack of carbohydrates and protein before you step out. This can provide sustained energy and keep you feeling satiated until your next meal. Options could range from whole-grain toast with almond butter, a cheese and grape combo, hard-boiled eggs paired with seasonal fruits, or a low-sugar granola bar;
  3. Embrace Moderate Portion Sizes. Try to moderate the size of every portion rather than stacking each plate to the top. Building healthy habits is not always about productivity, it’s about our health too. This approach facilitates better digestion and can help ward off post-meal discomforts like bloating. A study published in Nature Scientific Reports demonstrated that people tend to eat more when presented with larger portions, underscoring the importance of portion control;
  4. Utilize Organized Lists to Mitigate Stress. Maintaining a comprehensive and well-structured list can streamline shopping and planning, thereby attenuating potential sources of stress and anxiety during the holiday season;
  5. Counteract Holiday Stress with Benevolence. Approach every situation with empathy and understanding. By actively countering frustrations and extending goodwill, you can diffuse tension and create a more congenial atmosphere, subsequently reducing your anxiety;
  6. Establish Boundaries and Learn to Decline. Prioritize attending only the most meaningful social gatherings and steer clear of high-risk scenarios characterized by an abundance of tempting treats. Recognize your saturation point and, when necessary, permit yourself a breather or "time out";
  7. Be Mindful of Alcohol Consumption. Alcohol can stimulate appetite and lead to overeating. Opt for mixed drinks that contain generous amounts of sparkling water, or alternate between alcoholic beverages and glasses of water, to maintain a balance;
  8. Respect Diversity and Manage Expectations. Acknowledge and respect that family members may have viewpoints different from yours. Replace potential points of contention with constructive activities that foster unity and goodwill;
  9. Identify Your Emotional Triggers. Keep a close watch on emotions like sadness, excitement, disappointment, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed, as they can precipitate emotional eating.

When and Why to Seek Help From a Professional

Understanding when and why to seek help from a professional, particularly when it comes to eating behaviours, is necessary for maintaining your health and well-being. Here are some signs and reasons, backed by scientific facts, why you might consider reaching out to a health professional:

  • Frequent Emotional Eating. Emotional eating is normal from time to time, but if you consistently turn to food for comfort, it could signal a need for professional help. A professional can help you develop healthier coping mechanisms and guide you through cognitive behavioral therapies, which have been shown to effectively address emotional eating.
  • Food Obsession. If thoughts about food dominate your day, it may be indicative of an unhealthy relationship with food. Research indicates that cognitive-behavioral therapy can be beneficial for addressing food obsessions, helping you reestablish a balanced perspective.
  • Binge Eating or Purging. These are serious health concerns that require professional intervention. Professional treatment, often involving a combination of nutritional counseling, psychotherapy, and sometimes medication, can significantly improve recovery outcomes.
  • Impact on Physical Health. Unhealthy eating behaviours can lead to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other serious physical health problems. In such cases, seeking help from a medical professional can provide the necessary treatment and assist in developing healthier lifestyle habits.
  • Interference with Daily Life. If your eating behaviours have a major impact on your daily life (at work, school, or in your relationships) it's advisable to seek professional help. Psychological treatments have been proven to enhance daily functioning and improve quality of life.
  • Unsuccessful Past Attempts. If you've tried to modify your eating behaviours on your own without success, a health professional can provide additional support and strategies. Evidence suggests that multidisciplinary interventions (dietary, physical activity, and psychological therapies) are more effective than no treatment or standard treatment in reducing weight and improving emotional well-being.

Conclusion

Avoiding emotional eating during holidays takes more than just dodging your Aunt Betty's fruitcake. This time of year can be an overflowing cornucopia of stress, hidden under the twinkling lights and gift-wrapped packages, which can trigger stress eating or emotional eating.

Firstly, understanding the difference between emotional and physical hunger is fundamental. Recognize the signals your body sends for each type of hunger, and strive to eat mindfully, honoring your physical hunger cues while finding other ways to cope with emotional needs.

Secondly, it’s okay-ish (in relation to the stress) to indulge in your favourite holiday treats. However, aim for moderation rather than deprivation or overindulgence. Listen to your body's signals of fullness, and enjoy your food without guilt or anxiety.

If you find it challenging to manage stress eating, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Persistent emotional eating or significant distress around food is a valid reason to reach out to a health professional, like a mental health counselor or registered dietitian.

Finally, remember that the holidays are a time for joy and connection.  So focus on keeping a clear-eyed focus on the festive cheer, embracing the season's bounties with a balanced approach to food. Keep your well-being front and center – that's the real holiday spirit.

 

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About Kevin Rai

Kevin Rai is focussed upon spreading positive information about living a healthy life.  Leading a healthy life does not need to be complicated, there are plenty of easy methods that fit everyone. Kevin shares health & fitness topics over on his website Raikevin.com. Please contact Kevin via  krai@scoialmarketingconcept.com     https://www.raikevin.com/ 

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