stress emotions mindless eating image

Stress, emotions and mindless eating

In this article written by my colleague and Dietician Lara Rickard and myself we look at the connection between stress or emotions and how we eat.

Unbeknown to many, how we eat (including our relationship with food) plays a significant role in optimising health.

With our fast-paced lifestyles that have us striving for convenience, we often find ourselves not chewing properly, skipping meals, eating whilst working, driving, watching TV, standing or rushing out the door to catch the next train.

Many of us pay little attention to how we eat, and we’re often disconnected from the link between the food in front of us and our well-being.

In the past, mealtimes were seen as a sacred occasion. A time to reflect, give thanks, socialise and nourish the body. Yet nowadays, eating is often considered somewhat of a disruption to our current way of living, the truth is that how we eat contributes to the myriad of health challenges we’re currently faced with. Before we go any further, let’s consider what underpins this modern-day life; stress.

Stress can send us into something known as the fight or flight, or sympathetic nervous system, response.

Essentially this is a part of the nervous system that is involved in survival. It allows us to prioritise fighting or fleeing by sending out survival stress hormones, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, sending blood flow to the extremities and dilating the pupils so that we can take in more information. As a result, this decreases functions such as digestion & absorption, cell repair and regeneration & reproduction. We believe stress is a major cause of so many chronic digestive symptoms and the development of other imbalances, deficiencies and conditions.

Occasional fight or flight responses are fine and we can cope with them. But nowadays, we’re in this fight or flight state much more than our body was ever really designed for.

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An analogy to consider is a zebra running away from a lion. Imagine you’re that zebra. If you were running away from a lion would you want to stop and eat food? Would you want your body to be focusing on digesting a previous meal, regardless of how healthy it was? Or would you want your body to do everything possible to get you away from that lion?

Modern life is riddled with many ‘lions’ in the form of emails from bosses, unpleasant colleagues, traffic, financial pressures and strained relationships – all of which may influence how we pay attention to the food we eat. As that ‘zebra’, we’re then left to deal with the negative knock-on effect of this such as poor digestion, lowered sex drive and hormonal imbalances, to name but a few.

Our emotional state also impacts how we eat, and therefore how well we feel and function.

Remember that time you got home after a rough day of work, had a fight with your family member, flopped down on the couch and before getting halfway through the movie, found yourself surrounded by empty crisp bags, ice cream tubs & cookie containers – but you have almost no recollection of eating anything? But once you realise what you’ve done, there’s outrage and promises of food restriction… and so begins binge eating accompanied by the yo-yo dieting.

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Or how about that time that you thought you’d unwind by having your dinner in front of the tv? You ended up so engrossed in what you were watching, or so numbed by it, that it wouldn’t really have mattered if you were popping cardboard or a gourmet meal into your mouth.

How about when the clock strikes 9 and you find yourself shoveling a giant handful of chocolate buttons down your throat “because that’s what you’ve been doing every night since you were a kid”?

Mindless eating is basically autopilot. And that means that we can end up in places we didn’t really intend to go – like getting off at your work stop when you were on your way to see a friend.

Eating often causes us to use food in attempt to seek pleasure & avoid pain. Food is indeed one of the many things we find comfort in and we use as a way to drown out difficult, uncomfortable or challenging feelings – as researcher Brené Brown says, instead of facing these vulnerabilities we avoid them with “two beers & a banana muffin”. This often leaves us grappling with guilt & shame coupled with a whole lot of angry, negative self-talk.

So, remember these following points:

  • How we physically eat and how we perceive food impacts our health.
  • Stress, in particular, plays a significant role in our body’s ability to utilise nutrients and optimise digestion.
  • Our emotional state may cause us to develop mindless eating habits or using food as a crutch that, over time, can negatively impact overall health.
  • Mindful eating is a helpful strategy to address the above.

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