Stress: how it affects your eating behaviour – and why

Daisy Ford | 04 Nov, 2021

We all experience stress throughout our lives, whether it's from everyday pressures at work, or in our home life, or stress that arises when we're going through significant life events. There are many different causes, and how we respond varies greatly from person to person. One particularly common response to stress is changes in our eating behaviours. Do you find your appetite goes crazy during times of stress? Or do your hunger cues seem to virtually disappear?

We'll take a look at what's actually going on inside our bodies when we're feeling stressed – this might help you to better understand changes in your eating behaviours and what you can do about it.

Firstly, what is stress?

Stress is the body's reaction to situations where we feel threatened or under pressure. It is a physiological process that has evolved from our past when the external threats facing our ancestors were rife. You've heard of the 'fight-or-flight' system – when we're presented with a threat, our bodies automatically react in a way to promote survival. While physical life-threatening dangers are now much less common than back in caveman days, we still have this in-built stress response that becomes activated when exposed to perceived threats.

Feeling stressed isn't a pleasant experience, but in some instances, stress is an important reaction that can lead to positive outcomes – such as motivating us to meet the demands of our daily life (e.g. hitting deadlines). After all, it has evolved for a purpose! The problem is that nowadays, the system gets activated to threats that aren't actually life or death situations (though they may feel like it!). The survival response isn't required, yet our bodies undergo a series of physiological changes as if it is. We'll see an influx in the stress hormone cortisol released into the body which can alter or shut down bodily functions during stressful events. Other changes include an increased heart rate and blood pressure, heightened senses and dilated pupils. Living in this state of alert and stress for a prolonged period of time can have negative impacts on us physically, mentally and emotionally – we 'burnout'. In order to avoid this happening, we need to have good coping mechanisms to help us manage our stress levels and try to ensure our fight-or-flight system is only activated when it's really needed.

So, why does this influence our eating behaviour?

  1. Why you might forget to eat when you’re stressed – During stressful situations when your fight-or-flight system is activated, your body needs to prioritise its resources – so anything that isn't required may be temporarily shut down. This includes your digestive system, as well as other processes such as your reproductive and immune system. This response explains why being in a prolonged state of stress can have negative health effects, but also why some people can 'forget' to eat. Their digestive receptors are temporarily halted, compromising hunger cues. All attention and energy is focused on functions responsible for the looming 'fight-or-flight' – essentially the mind and body is elsewhere, rather than thinking about their next meal.
  2. Why you might be reaching for extra snacks when you’re stressed – On the flip side, many people find themselves overeating during times of stress. There could be a couple of explanations for this. Firstly, as previously mentioned, your body releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol can increase your desire to eat and might make you crave sugary and fatty foods because your brain thinks it needs energy to prepare for action against the perceived threat. This is perhaps more likely if your stress levels have been gradually building over time, so your cortisol levels have remained elevated for a while.

    We may also turn to food when we're stressed for comfort, to make ourselves feel better or to distract ourselves. In this sense, the overeating is a coping mechanism to the stress, which has an indirect effect on our eating behaviour.

    It's not uncommon for our emotions to govern our eating patterns – boredom, anxiety and anger are all common emotional eating triggers. The problem is that such a response can derail you from reaching your weight goal. When we comfort eat, we invariably reach for higher fat and sugary foods, as these release our feel-good hormones (dopamine), which in turn leads to an increased appetite and more overeating. Not only can it throw your diet off track, eating too much food high in fat and sugar has long-term health implications too.

    So, we can see why stress, particularly when it's experienced over a long period of time, is linked to weight gain. Other stress-related behaviours can also contribute to problems with weight – such as lack of sleep, exercise and drinking more alcohol.

What can we do about it?

The place to start is to build up our stress management skills. Stress in some form is part of life, so it's important we try to equip ourselves with healthy coping mechanisms to support us through stressful situations, and counter any behaviours that may cause us harm. We want to try and minimise the stressors where possible, but as and when they do arise, deal with them in a way that prevents the fight-or-flight system being activated unnecessarily. If we can do this, we can manage the impact it has on our eating behaviours.

Have a think about some of the things in your life that cause you stress and take a look at the following things you could try to help manage your stress levels.

  1. Exercise – Increasing your physical activity is a great way to let off steam. It not only works as a distraction technique, but it also releases endorphins that make you feel good, thus relieving tension. After a good workout, you'll be feeling re-energised and the thoughts niggling away at you have hopefully subsided. An additional perk is a boost to your fitness levels!
  2. Meditation and mindfulness – Having the ability to detach yourself from a stressful event and temporarily 'switch off' is hugely beneficial. When you feel the stress building up, try removing yourself from the situation and allow some time to let your mind and body relax and ease you back to a state of equilibrium. Our minds can get foggy when we're feeling stressed and mental processes like decision-making can be hindered, which can make dealing with the stressor even more difficult. So being equipped with the skills to take a step back, clear your mind and restore your mental resources should help you handle stressful situations more effectively. Practicing mindfulness or taking yoga classes are great ways to reinstate some calmness when you're stressed.

    For more about mindfulness, take a look at our blog the importance of mindfulness.
  3. Self-care – The link between self-care and mental health is becoming increasingly apparent. Regularly taking some time to yourself to do something you enjoy can really help keep your stress levels at bay. Often we feel guilty for taking time for ourselves, especially during stressful events, but this is actually the best time to be making sure we're looking after our mental health. It can work as a distraction technique and help you maintain some calmness, which in turn means you're more likely to manage the stress better. So next time you can feel your stress levels building, try taking an evening to yourself to watch your favourite film, meet up with some friends, read a book or run a nice hot bath. Take time to relax and refresh – you'll definitely feel the benefit!
  4. Plan ahead and be prepared – If you know you have a stressful few days coming up, plan ahead as much as you can. Being prepared will mean you have freed up more mental capacity and resources to cope with the stress effectively. Start by making a to-do list and breaking down the different tasks that need sorting. Organising your time in advance will help you avoid entering panic mode – you can also make sure you allow yourself some time for exercise, relaxation and self-care to manage the stress and keep the fight-or-flight system firmly switched off.
  5. Keep up your daily routine – Stress can feel even more overwhelming when it causes our daily routines to slip out of our control. Lack of the regular structure we're used to also makes a healthier diet more difficult to stick to – which in turn can contribute to more stress. Organise your time to make room for a good nights sleep (7 to 8 hours) and 3 meals throughout the day. If stress causes you to forget to eat, swap your internal cues for external ones and set a reminder in the Nutracheck app for your preferred mealtimes as a prompt.

    Get a food shop in so you can make sure you're prepared and stocked up with healthy nutritious foods. This is particularly important if you're prone to comfort eating when you're stressed – you want to make sure you have healthier snack choices on hand! Plan your meals and try to do some meal prep for busy weeks (freezing leftovers is great for this).

    For ideas on stress-combating healthier food choices, read this blog: 6 foods to help lower your stress levels.

To summarise, the best way to not let stress get the better of your eating behaviours is by being equipped with healthy stress management techniques. Different things will work for different people – you've got to find what works for you. Focus on being proactive and prepared to avoid stress getting to an unmanageable level where the fight-or-flight system takes over. Make sure you use positive distraction techniques and coping mechanisms that won't derail you from reaching your goals. The aim is to prevent stress from consuming you to the point your mental capacity is thwarted, making you less equipped to deal with it, and therefore more likely to fall into bad habits.

Daisy Ford BSc (Hons) Psychology is passionate about how psychology can affect our nutritional choices and how understanding the human mind can help promote healthier choices, well-being, and prevent ill health.