Mental Health and the Connection with Our Eating Habits

Man biting into a burger to indicate stress eating

We often turn to food for comfort. The taste of potato chips and cookies in the middle of that important meeting; that bucket of ice cream to console a friend who’s had a break-up; the chocolate and coffee we binge on when there’s a deadline the next morning. All these are examples of us turning to comfort foods when we’re stressed or worried. In other words ‘stress eating’.

It’s not that ice cream after a breakup can ease the pain or cookies can make us think smarter at that meeting; we indulge in such foods because our state of mind has a lot to do with our eating choices as well as food habits.

Stress eating is a response to stressful events in everyday life. It’s a way to soothe or suppress our undesirable emotions such as stress, anger, loneliness, or fear.

A tiring job, family problems, social pressure, peer pressure, medical issues - any of these can be triggers for stress eating. In fact, even positive events can lead to stress and overeating for many people.

Stress eating, mental disorder, depression, loneliness, stress. Lonely woman eating sweets and watching tv late in the night.

In this article we explore the relation between stress, emotions, and our mental health.

What is the connection between stress and our appetite?

We all deal with stress in our lives. High-stress levels affect our appetite. While some of us might experience reduced or no appetite at all, many of us tend to experience a boost in appetite.

Stress eating is a response to our overwhelming emotions. It has nothing to do with real hunger.

When we’re stressed out we tend to turn to those foods that bring us happy memories of childhood or other food that we associate with comfort and fun such as chocolate, candy bars, pizza, or ice cream. These usually tend to come under the category of junk food and are mostly high in calorie count.

High levels of stress can adversely affect our normal appetite levels. Stress eating occurs when people use food as a coping mechanism to address intense feelings. Unwanted emotions and unpleasant situations can make us feel lonely, sad, shocked, or frightened.

Similarly, positive events too can make us nervous, fearful, and cause performance anxiety. In moments such as these, some of us find comfort in eating unhealthy foods.

An Asian man looking stressed in front of his computer, stress eating a hamburger.
It’s very common to stress eat due to work-related tension

In extreme stress, our body releases a hormone called cortisol to protect itself from harm. Chronic stress and the release of cortisol over a long period causes increased food consumption and unhealthy weight gain.

How can stress eating harm us mentally and physically?

Stress eating can impact us in the long-run not just physically by leading to weight gain and other related health issues, but also mentally. Here are some dangers of emotional eating on our mental well-being.

Our brain gets obsessed with sugar

When we are stressed, our mind craves for food with high sugar and fat content. Sugar turns down the stress response in the human brain and elevates us emotionally.

Woman looking helpless and frustrated. She is holding a placard saying 'Help!' while sitting in front of a plate with chocolate and doughnut. This indicates her sugar addiction and out of control stress eating.
Sugar addiction is a common result of stress eating

However, this is just temporary relief. As a result of this, we can get addicted to sugar. That means, the more sugar and fat rich food you eat, the more you crave for it.

We may not realize it, but not just desserts and sweets, even fast foods and aerated drinks contain a lot of sugar.

Over time, high sugar and fat intake can lead to dangerous health issues such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

We become more anxious

Many fast foods contain refined carbohydrates that can make our blood sugar levels fluctuate. High blood sugar can lead to anxiety and stress eating.

Portrait of sad young woman holding a bar of chocolate in her hand and looking guilty because she indulges in stress eating
There is a lot of guilt and anxiety before and after stress eating

In some cases, stress eating causes panic attacks, insomnia, and we tend to also feel guilty later after excessive eating.

Our body weight is impacted

Unfortunately, we live in a society where body types and shape is paid undue attention. Youngsters especially, face intense and unreasonable social pressure with regards to weight and it is impossible to make everyone happy because one is either ‘too thin’ or ‘overweight’.

Emotional or stress eating however, does not making this easier and triggers a downward spiral that is extremely difficult to escape from.

Illustration of Obese Man and Fast Food Menu on Blue Textured Background
Stress eating usually results in high calorie intake and various related health issues

It actually causes people to become overweight and starts a bad cycle as shown in the diagram below.

It can result in hyperactivity

Have you heard the term ‘sugar rush’? A sugar rush is a hyperactive sensation in our brain. Fast foods contain artificial colour, sugar, sodium benzoate, and other preservatives that cause a sugar rush.

A sugar rush releases the feel-good hormone called dopamine in our brain. That’s why we’re more likely to have a sudden urge to eat chocolate or ice cream after a stressful event as that makes us feel temporarily better.

Sudden consumption of these unhealthy foods can lead to symptoms such as dizziness, high energy, and alertness. Once the sugar rush ends, the low blood sugar in our body makes us feel hungry even after eating. This again leads to us consuming food in greater quantities than needed by our bodies.

Note: As always with anything controversial, there is conflicting medical research that denounces the previous theories about sugar being unhealthy or causing a sugar rush. While it may take some time for medical science to be conclusive, it is ideal to be mindful of this and to consume anything in a healthy and moderate fashion. Also, the further away something looks from its natural form, indicates that it’s been heavily processed. So try to pay attention to that guidance and practise moderation whenever in doubt.

Five ways to manage stress eating

Self-awareness and building EQ can go a long way in helping us be more careful around stress and stress eating.

  1. Be mindful: We can observe and ask ourselves how often we feel the need to eat. What do we feel when we go through a stressful situation? Do we eat specific foods when we’re stressed? Practising mindful eating can help us to know if the cravings are the result of stress or not.
  2. Identify triggers: Recognizing our emotions and stressors can help us cope with stress eating. Once we identify our stress eating triggers, we can take steps to manage them.
  3. Meditate: It’s no longer a secret that meditation can help control and manage stress. Meditation can also help us in practising mindful eating. We can meditate about food and eating habits; we can visualize ourselves saying no to fast foods which are unhealthy for us, and determine to eat healthier food.
  4. Learn to cope: We can learn to cope with our emotions in other healthier ways that don’t include emotional eating. It’s important to remember that stressful feelings are temporary, and that they pass. When we’re stressed, we can distract ourselves by practising other coping mechanisms such as writing, talking to a friend, or even taking a nap.
  5. Reach out for help: It’s also a great idea to reach out for help and share our feelings with friends and family. They can provide mental strength and emotional support to us during stressful times. However, cases of chronic stress eating may need professional attention from a counsellor to keep it in check and shouldn’t be ignored or trivialized.

To conclude...

We can’t ignore stress eating by waiting for it to change over time. Stress eating has the power to damage both our physical and mental health. Once identified, it is advisable to take steps to prevent stress eating and develop healthy eating habits.

Inspiration motivation quotelet: Eat to fuel your body not your emotions. Diet, Sport, Fitness, Mindfulness, Healthy lifestyle concept. The quote is shown above a box of macarons and doughnuts.

We live in an uncertain world where stress is becoming more and more common. So the next time we feel the urge to eat out of stress rather than hunger, it’s important to be mindful of it and follow the steps mentioned above or seek professional help.

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Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only. Lokyatha has observed best effort due diligence and all health related content is reviewed by a trained professional before publishing. However, this should not and can not replace personalized medical help. Please refer to a professional in all cases of need.