Stress eating increases in tough economic times, according to this AP article. The emotional turmoil of watching our 401Ks shrink makes us crave sweets, while unemployment gives us more time to sit around and snack. And as we all know, junk food is more affordable than vegetables, fruits, and other nutritious foods.
But have you ever wondered exactly why stress sabotages your diet? After all, some people lose their appetites when they’re stressed out. Why aren’t you one of those people? You might be relieved to know that your sugar cravings aren’t entirely due to lack of willpower -- it’s human instinct to seek out sweet foods when our energy is low. In its natural state, sugar is most abundant in fruits, grains, and starchy vegetables like carrots and potatoes. These carbohydrates enter our bloodstream quickly, delivering an instant shot of nutrients and keeping us going until we find our next meal. Meanwhile, your brain releases natural opiates that relax you and lift your spirits. Nature rewards us for eating sugar by making us happy.
But nature didn’t count on Twinkies. Modern carb-heavy foods don’t contain nutrients, only sugar. Not only does refined sugar not contribute anything to your body; it actually costs your body to metabolize it. This leaves you even more depleted, so you seek out more sugar, and the cycle continues.
Which brings us to the second part of the question. Why do some people lose their appetites in a stressful situation? Appetite loss can also be a normal reaction to stress. When your body perceives a threat, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure climbs, and your digestive system shuts down. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flow through your body, preparing you to fight or flee. Food is the last thing on your mind.
Unless you’re on a diet and you’re hungry. Eating, in this case, causes your brain to release those happy chemicals and provides a bit of stress relief -- until the sugar rush ends and remorse sets in.
In other words, the way to inoculate yourself against stress eating is to make sure you are well nourished, not food-deprived. That means taking time to eat healthy food in a relaxed fashion, no matter how crazy your life gets. In fact, in these challenging times, eating well is more important than ever.