Were you today-years-old when you realized that? Or have you known that one for a long time?
The truth is, about 40% of us turn to certain foods or drinks when our stress levels spike (according to the American Psychological Association). And that’s old news – pre-pandemic where we all stayed home in our stretchy pants all day. Sadly, broccoli never seems to be one of my comfort foods. Can you imagine? “Hey hon, I know you’ve had a hard day, so I picked up a big veggie tray with some hummus. We’ll just have a chill evening crunching on carrots.” Said no one ever.
So why then do we turn to the sweets and the salty foods in that exact situation? There is both physiological and psychological reasons to this.
When we experience stress, the brain perceives an emergency, like we are being chased by a tiger. We may get cravings for high carbohydrate foods that are rapidly digested in order to give us immediate energy. This would be helpful if we were in a sprint for our lives, but not as helpful when sitting in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, trying to mop up spilled French vanilla latte off your pants with a used Kleenex. Regardless, your body interprets the stress the same and therefore sends the same messaging.
The second component is once we have consumed that food (typically high carbohydrate or high fat), a signal is sent in our brain, releasing those famous ‘feel good’ hormones like dopamine. We feel better and relieved for a short period of time. The catch is, the more we act on that craving, the more that signal pathway becomes engrained in our brain, turning into a habit.
Every time stress is high, your brain tells you exactly what food or drink you should have because you are conditioned to experience that dopamine release when eating that food. In reality, it might leave you feeling worse in the long run, but your brain does not communicate that part automatically (how convenient).
Our culture and food marketing all encourage this (see you-deserve-this messaging) which makes it even more challenging to break away from. I would encourage you to look for other ways to manage stress instead of just food or drinks. This literally means creating new habits, which can be incredibly difficult. A hard day might begin to be associated with a long walk, a workout, snuggling a dog, calming (or crazy) music, having a bath, crocheting, basket weaving, WHATEVER. But the more you can disassociate food with a reward, the more neutral food becomes in your life. There are not a lot of foods on my ‘never’ list. Everything can be present in the diet and have a time and a place, but having those indulgent foods outside of times that we need a reward lessens the habit-forming power. And honestly, after a truly hard day, you deserve more than just a chocolate pat on the back.
From a health standpoint, stress-eating can be quite detrimental to our long-term health. It affects your blood sugar control, your overall nutrient intake, and potentially other factors such as blood pressure, weight management, or even alcoholism. What you do today will affect where you are 10, 20, and 30 years from now. So you don’t have to wait for Monday to become a whole-new-you and embrace kale at every meal.
Just take a moment to think about it – what is one food or drink you reach for when stressed, and what is one activity that helps you relax that you can start to switch it out with? Be patient with yourself on this one. Behaviour change is hard, so give yourself lots, and lots, and lots of grace. For more ideas on stress management, check out more of our blogs at www.revivewellness.ca or my co-worker’s 10 ways to manage cravings webinar.
If you are searching for additional support in your mental health journey, visit our Resources page for more information and links.