Feeding your stress: Why you do it and how to gain back control

Feeding your stress: in the Vancouver Sun

 As published in The Province newspaper, May 29, 2014


Most of us have a good idea of how we’re supposed to eat, but unfortunately, life and the stress that comes with it often get in the way. When we’re stressed out, whether from fast-paced careers or the demands of family life, our eating habits can be the first to suffer. We tell ourselves we’ll get back on track once the storm passes, but the negative impact on our bodies continues while the storm is surging. For many of us, the storm never ceases.

The correlation between stress and natural physiological reactions has been outlined below to help you understand how it impacts eating habits, and what you can do to finally put a stop to stress-induced patterns.

Stress in our life increases cortisol (the “stress hormone”) which in turn, causes the following hormonal reactions that make us want to eat.

  • An increase in ghrelin (hunger hormone)
  • A decrease in insulin (storage hormone)
  • Increased blood sugar levels (cells aren’t getting nutrition)
  • Increased abdominal fat (cells send out other hormones)
  • Lower levels of feel-good hormones (e.g. starchy and sugary foods boosts serotonin)
  • More cravings
  • Poor sleep quality

Research has shown that sleep deprivation and long gaps between food intake (both common reactions during times of stress) also increase levels of cortisol.

If high stress has become a permanent part of your life, consider these helpful tips from the Copeman Healthcare Dietitian team to assist in managing your eating habits.

Tips for combating stress-induced eating

  • Eat within 2 hours of waking
  • Eat every 3 to 4 hours
  • Do not eat within 2 hours of bedtime
  • Consume plenty of fruits and vegetables to stay full and avoid breaking the calorie bank (4 -5 fistfuls per day)
  • Eat protein during meals and snacks to stay satisfied longer
  • Limit refined starches because they can cause your energy to fall. Focus on high fibre choices, but keep portions small.
  • Hydrate well to keep yourself alert & feeling full (8 – 10 glasses per day)

Cravings? If you are not hungry but still find yourself eating then perhaps you need a distraction. Try a walk or a change in activity. If you are physically hungry, grab an apple or another healthy snack.

Planning is essential to combating your stress induced eating. Pack lunches and snacks the night (or weekend) before and keep healthy snacks close at hand. For those in a time-crunch, make sure you know the healthy spots for picking up a quick lunch or snack near your office or while you are out and about.

This type of change involves planning and consistency, but can be very effective over time. It can also keep you feeling in control – even when life is chaotic.

Proper understanding and control of unhealthy reactions to stress are important to your overall well-being – not just your waistline. The long-term impacts of high cortisol levels include, but are not limited to:

  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Decreased bone density
  • Increased fat in midsection

These are all areas that should be monitored if you are under chronic stress to avoid more serious conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke. The team at Copeman Healthcare can help you monitor and mitigate the impact of stress both on your diet and your overall health and wellness.

Gelina Syfchuck is a Registered Dietitian, having received her degree, with honours, from the University of British Columbia and practical training at St. Paul’s Hospital. Her passion is understanding the integral role of food and nutrition in health, as well as the reciprocal role of health and wellbeing on the intake of food. Gelina is committed to helping her clients attain optimal health. Her specific interests are: gastrointestinal health, digestive concerns and food allergies & intolerances.

Health Trend: While most people know what they should be eating, when stress hormones kick in it’s difficult to stay on track and away from the food our bodies crave. Registered Dietitian, Gelina Syfchuck tackles the tough topic of stress eating, including why we do it and what we can do to stop.

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