I Eat Because... I'm Stressed

Your brain chemistry is dictating your stress-eating.

Being overloaded at work, struggling with a personal crisis, or simply feeling like everything is just too much – it's no secret that stress and anxiety can take a huge toll on our health.

And, as our survey revealed, these emotions can directly impact our diet. About half of the people we surveyed said stress and anxiety affect the way they eat:

say stress impacts their eating habits
say stress causes them to eat more than they normally would
say stress makes them want to eat less
say anxiety impacts their eating habits
say feeling anxious makes them want to eat less
say feeling anxious causes them to eat more than they normally would

When you're in a challenging situation

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The brain's fight or flight instinct is triggered releasing adrenaline, which surges through the body to enable us to fight the cause or run away from it to safety.
Adrenaline causes our appetite to be suppressed.
Blood flow is directed away from the internal organs, including the digestive system.
The blood flow is prioritised to our muscles, to allow us to physically retreat or resolve the triggering situation.
Adrenaline also causes…
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dilated airways
  • Increased glucose levels
When the stressful situation has ended, adrenaline levels drop.
This causes a surge in the cortisol hormone, which can cause cravings for sugar and fat.
Long-term stress causes the body to overproduce cortisol, which increases the craving for fatty, sugary foods.

How to eat to combat stress

If you crave sugary and fatty comfort foods because of your hormones, could that mean they're good for combatting stress? Unfortunately, that's not the case.

"Foods containing fat and sugar appear to 'dampen' the area of our brains responsible for generating the stress or anxiety response. This means that when we eat these foods, we enjoy a temporary relief from those negative emotions.

Unfortunately, as our bodies process the fat and sugar, we experience a severe drop in blood sugar levels, which can increase anxiety. This can cause a vicious cycle of overeating and anxiety, as we try to chase that feeling of relief."

Dr Prudence Knight of Push Doctor

So, what's the difference between anxiety and stress?

Anxiety makes you eat less: your stomach isn't the priority, so you don't crave food
Stress can make you eat more: cortisol makes you crave high-energy food

In the past, the physical fight or flight response was more necessary as the body had to be able to fight off a danger or run and hide. The cravings for high-energy food are to help the body recover quickly and rapidly increase energy levels after a traumatic event.

Today's stressors are very often less physical than before, and long-term anxiety about non-physical situations do not usually require such an influx of high-energy foods – but the body still reacts in the same way.

Eat this, avoid that

So, what food does help with anxiety and stress? It's important to remember that anxiety cannot be caused or cured by food. But there are food choices that can help an existing problem – or make it worse.

Dr Knight recommends a well-balanced diet of sustained energy to keep blood sugar levels stable. These include:

Fruits and vegetables: The vitamins and minerals in these foods help the body function at its best.

Protein: Protein helps the body heal and produce necessary hormones. Sources of good protein include beans, pulses, fish, eggs, and meat.

Fat: Certain fats help with brain function, which is particularly important for those suffering from anxiety regularly. Good sources include oily fish, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.

No one food type should be avoided entirely, and none can cause or cure anxiety. However, consider limiting the following, as they can worsen existing anxiety symptoms:

Caffeine: Drinking under or up to the recommended allowance of 300mg per day (the equivalent of four cups of black coffee or green tea) should not impact anxious feelings for most people. However, higher levels of caffeine – especially when mixed with sweeteners – can negatively impact your digestive system and heartrate, which can mean those with anxiety and panic disorders become more anxious.

Alcohol: Drinking alcohol makes you feel temporarily relaxed in the moment. However, the withdrawal symptoms the next day will make your anxiety levels surge to varying degrees for different people.