012 Stress & Eating Behaviors

by reeger on November 19, 2013



Stress, Food Motivation, and Eating Behaviors

Obesity Week, Atlanta, Georgia, 2013,

Notes from Dr Rajita Sinha presentation.

High stress increases food cravings and snacking of high calorie, highly palatable foods in overweight people but not lean people

Over weight/obese people show greater brain activation in motivation, reward, and emotionally driven parts of the brain. This brain activation correlates more significantly with having food cravings than in non-over weight or obese people.

Stress and reward (think sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and in this case reward means using something like food to counter or relieve the stress, not a reward for being stressed) Stress and reward pathways in the brain are overlapping and complementary pathways that are in place to ensure adaptation and survival.  So when we are talking about food cravings, if there is high stress there is also high motivation for calorie dense, highly palatable foods.

Chronic stress increase a persons sensitivity (need) for reward and habit processes (the person is more likely to turn to the object they believe will give them relief) (and by “habit processes” we mean, when stressed a person always craves the same food or similar foods: often these are sweet, salty, crunchy high calorie, highly palatably foods) and this in turn increases cravings. Meaning, when a person faces chronic stressors, whether it is the same stress over and over (work, family, money, etc) or new stressors, maybe a situational stress such as an acute illness or accident of a loved one that could also become chronic, the persons brain becomes habituated to crave the problematic foods.

And here’s the rub, or the chicken and the egg question: Chronic consumption of problematic foods also increases a person’s bio-behavioral adaptation (think biology +/or biochemistry) that maintain motivational pathways in a sensitized state.  What does this mean? The more a person consumes the problematic food, the more they will remain in a heightened state of craving the food and the more likely they may be to consume the food.

So that is my cliff notes version of Dr Sinha’s presentation. I know that’s quick, and honestly she spoke for over 30 minutes on the study findings of the chronic stress, food motivation, and eating behaviors but I want to get to potential solutions because if you are someone who is thinking, “Wow that me! But what do I do about it? Here are some of my thoughts…

And certainly I wish I could just give you a simple answer here. These are things we all struggle with, including myself. When I am stressed and tired, tired and stressed, I crave bread or simple carbs. I know I’m not alone in this so I don’t mind sharing this struggle I have.

But back to solutions, given the fact that there are no cures or quick fixes here are four actions you can take RIGHT NOW to help reduce your stress and stress related behaviors around food:

First, reduce your stress if possible. If you are in a situation that is causing you chronic stress, then do your best to get out of that situation. If it is not possible to actually remove yourself from the situation, then remove or change your thinking about the situation that is causing the stress. Remember, emotional stress is caused by emotions, and emotions are choices. I know, im over simplifying something that is very complicated because sometimes it feels like we have no choice in how we feel about a given situation, but in reality we have 100% control in how we choose to feel about a situation. If how you are choosing to feel is resulting in stress and that stress is causing you to be unhealthy in body, mind, and spirit (including causing you to turn to unhealthy foods), then identify the problem, change or get out if you can, if not then, reframe your thinking.

Second, It goes without saying but lets say it anyway: exercise reduces stress. Meditation, does as well: even simply sitting quietly for a few moments has been shown to reduce a persons day to day perception of stress.

Third, set yourself up for success around food. Look at where, when, and why you are turning to you problematic food. If you have those foods in your home, throw them out. Don’t give them away. Nobody else needs them either. If you are prone to buy trouble foods when you go shopping after work, when you are tired and stressed, then don’t shop at that time.  If you find yourself eating poorly when faced with spontaneous food choices or around food pushers, then be sure to always carry some health choices with you to increase your chances that you will make a healthier choice the next time you are caught off guard in an eating environment.

And forth, have an accountability mechanism, perhaps a trusted friend you can turn to, text, email, facebook when you need support in your moment of need. With so much social media these days, there are numerous ways to reach out for help when one needs it.  Don’t be an island, reach out, connect, ask for help, and also important offer help to someone else.

Ok that’s all for now. Go forth and be healthy in body, mind, and spirit!

Reeger Cortell, FNP


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