How your mind and body interpret your states of "emergency"
Stress and weight gain often go hand in hand, so understanding your behavioural patterns in stressful situations can do wonders for your waistline, as well as your general health and wellbeing.
We live in a stress-full culture, so it is understandable if the efforts necessary to maintain or obtain the “perfect” weight and body shape just seem impossible sometimes. We should also reject all the body-shaming we “normal” people face – and subject ourselves to – when compared to the “beautiful” people championed by the media. Our cultural standards of beauty are often unattainable and just become another source of chronic dissatisfaction and stress. However, rejecting harmful standards doesn’t mean we should also reject sensible health recommendations. There is a proven link between chronic stress and weight gain, as well as a serious illness.
So, let’s dive into the two most common psychological and physiological mechanisms responsible for pilling up the pounds during stressful times – emotional eating and the cortisol response. After all, if we understand the WHY, we can control the HOW of stress and weight gain.
Emotional eating as a response to stress
If feeling down or upset tends to trigger your appetite, you may be an emotional eater. A combination of feeling increased tension but also low-energy is cited as a common thread to many negative moods (including depression and anxiety) that have been associated with overeating. If eating is used to self-regulate mood, this creates an association between stress and weight gain (1).
It doesn’t always happen like in the movies – crying in front of the TV while diving in a giant bucket of ice cream is dramatic, but it’s not the most common type of emotional eating. Also, this pattern of behaviour is not exclusive to women.
Clinicians have identified a series of factors associated with emotional overeating:
- retreating from social interaction when facing emotional challenges
- not engaging in other activities that may relieve stress or negative feelings (such as crying)
- not making any difference between physical and emotional hunger
- negative self-image following bingeing episodes, often creating a vicious cycle of stress - emotional eating – negative feeling – more emotional eating
- rising cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings and changes in the way the body uses energy (2).
It’s important to remember that “emotional” hunger is different from physical hunger, and as such can never truly be satisfied with food. Eating can feel good for a short time, but it never solves any problem and is often followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and powerlessness. Emotional eaters often fail when attempting weight loss not because they lack will power or control, but because their emotional needs are ignored, so they try to compensate with “comfort” food, leading to more stress and weight gain.
Understanding the difference between emotional and physical hunger (2) is the first step towards breaking this cycle:
- Is very sudden
- Appears in close association with stressful or upsetting events, but also with feeling tired or “low energy”
- Often involves craving particular foods (especially sweet and fatty)
- Is not satisfied when feeling full
- Is often followed by more negative feelings
- Builds up gradually
- Is not associated with external events, just time and physical activity
- One is open to eating anything
- Is satisfied when feeling full
- Is not associated with any negative feelings during or after eating
If you find you often manifest the signs of emotional hunger, the best thing to do is to stop and consider your feelings more carefully. they may have nothing to do with your physical needs.
Watch out for the second part of this article, in which we’ll explore the pivotal role played by cortisol, or the “stress hormone”, in your body links stress and weight gain.
- Nguyen-Rodriguez, S. T., Unger, J. B., & Spruijt-Metz, D. (2009). Psychological determinants of emotional eating in adolescence. Eating disorders, 17(3), 211–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640260902848543
- Feeding your feelings. (2014). [Blog]. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/feeding-your-feelings
By Ioana Vulcan,
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