Stress Eating: How Food and Mood Are Connected

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July 17, 2020


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We are all experiencing unprecedented pressures and stress from the way the coronavirus has changed our lives. According to a poll by the American Psychiatric Association, about half of us are anxious about contracting COVID-19, and about two-thirds of us are anxious about loved ones getting the virus.

With increased levels of stress, Baptist Health South Florida experts Amy Kimberlain, registered dietitian, and Amy Exum, LMHC, psychotherapist, told viewers on an IGTV segment that there is, in fact, a definite connection between your mood and food.

“This is a physiological response and our bodies react in different ways,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “We have a stress hormone called cortisol … know that cortisol can actually lead you to some of those foods that are sugary or salty or sweet because your body is sensing that it needs some type of fuel to fight off whatever threat it thinks that stress is.”

Short-term, an increase in cortisol can decrease appetite, Kimberlain explains, but if stress persists it can lead to an increase in appetite.

Ms. Exum added that during such high pressure and stressful times we “find ourselves turning towards other things to help us cope in these moments. Things that are maybe unhealthy or not as healthy as we’d like them to be.” However, both experts conclude this is a “normal” response to have and the first step to fixing the matter is awareness.

What are some mindful eating tips you can ask yourself?

Since most people eat for reasons other than physical hunger, the first question of “Why do I eat?” is often central to ultimately changing behavior, Ms. Kimberlain explains.

Here are a list of questions to ask yourself:

  • “Why do I eat?”
  •  “When do I want to eat?”
  •  “What do I eat?”
  •  “How do I eat?”
  • “How much do I eat?”
  • “Where does the energy go?”

Is it OK to eat food for comfort?

It’s true that “food is comforting,” says Ms. Exum. “Reading up on the literature, we see that food actually brings this feeling of alleviating loneliness. So, we definitely want to acknowledge that food is not just for nutrition, but it’s an enjoyable part of life. But, some of us (through COVID-19) just might be indulging a little bit more because we’ve lost a lot of the other things – temporarily – that we usually enjoy.”

However, rather than going straight to the pantry, Ms. Exum suggests to stop and ask yourself what a healthy choice would be for yourself in that moment.

“Rather than going to eat something, can (you) engage in some sort of activity for at least five minutes to get (your) head out of this place and find something that’s more healthy for (yourself) in that moment,” explains Ms. Exum.

What are some tips to improve mood with food?

  • Check the timing of your meals

According to Ms. Kimberlain, it’s important to try to create a schedule of the day — all while honoring your hunger cues. Timing your meals allows you to avoid going too long without eating and prevents your sugar levels from fluctuating.

  • Eat a balanced meal.

“A balanced meal includes your whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “This helps keep your sugar stable and ultimately, will keep you fuller longer.”

You’re not alone.

It’s unrealistic to reduce all stress in our lives, says Ms. Exum. In fact, some stress at a moderate to low level is healthy.

However, Ms. Exum adds that it’s “important to be mindful when we’re running into other issues that are starting to impact our physical health. We want to stay away from this idea of all of nothing – the idea that I’m really stressed or I’m not stressed at all and I have nothing to worry about.”

The main goal, Exum says, is bringing down your stress levels so they’re manageable and so you can move forward with daily life.

“If you find that you can’t or you find that your struggling to wake up, struggling to get to work … struggling to get your meals in … that really is a time to seek out a professional … That is what we’re here for,” says Ms. Exum. “There is such a huge stigma around mental health, but mental health is something that we’re dealing with every day. We want to keep it strong and we want to keep it healthy and for those of you who are struggling, that’s what we’re here for, to support you.”

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