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Recognizing stress and emotional eating and learning to deal with it

April 13, 2011

Everyday we are faced with some type of stress. Whether it is a deadline at work or just trying to get errands run before the morning rush, we all face stress, and how each of us deals with it is a personal choice. Emotional eating is a way many people cope with negative feelings such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress, and boredom. We consume unhealthy foods or unhealthy amounts of food to hide negative thoughts and feelings. Knowing what causes us to turn to food in a stressful time is a key in preventing emotional eating patterns. It is also important for us to be able to recognize emotional eating and how to deal with it.

What is Stress?
Each individual may have his/her own definition of stress. In general, stress is an emotionally-upsetting condition, which may be accompanied by the following symptoms:
u Feeling tired or run down
u Weight loss or gain
u Frequent headaches
u Feeling overwhelmed
u Getting angry or frustrated easy
u Becoming more critical or yourself and others

What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is consuming foods in response to emotions, especially negative emotions, instead of hunger. Common signs of emotional eating include:
u Obsessing about food
u Using food as a reward
u Binge eating
u Impulsive eating
u Out of control consumption
u Inability to stop eating/continuing to eat when full
u Hiding evidence of eating/eating in private
u Feelings of guilt or remorse after eating
u Disconnection from physiological signals of hunger and satiety
u Weight fluctuation
u Inability to recognize the reason for eating
u Eating at a faster rate than normal

Stress-Induced Eating
Often an individual’s reaction to stress is evidenced in their eating habits. While it is more common to overeat when “stressed out,” there are those who under eat. Both habits are detrimental to the person’s overall well-being. Eating too little depletes one’s energy, and decreases the ability to focus. Eating too much tends to lead to weight gain, and often causes sluggishness, which may impair one’s ability to think clearly.
Cravings experienced under stress are not just a figment of the imagination—there is a biological basis to them. When a person experiences something stressful, their brain goes into “fight or flight” mode, and the body undergoes many changes as it prepares for physical activity, including the release of adrenaline and Cortisol. These hormones help mobilize carbohydrates and fat for quick energy. When the stress is over, the Cortisol acts to increase appetite so the carbohydrates and fat that should have burned while fleeing or fighting can be replaced. Most often, people do not physically react to the stressor, so they don’t need to replace any carbohydrates or fat because none was used. If an individual gives in to their cravings each time they are stressed, weight gain will probably occur because excess energy (carbohydrates and fat) is not used.

Dealing with Emotional Eating
To recognize the problem of emotional eating, examine the signs of stress and emotional eating mentioned above. If you can identify one or more of these signs, you may have a problem with emotional eating. Some ways of resolving less severe problems with emotional eating include:
u Substituting other activities for eating when you are not hungry.
u Reducing stress in your life.
u Finding a support group or accountability partner
u hoosing healthy snacks and meals while avoiding “junk” foods.

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