In times of stress, many of us turn for consolation to sugary, fatty, high-calorie foods. Macaroni and cheese? Meatloaf and mashed potatoes with extra butter? A massive hunk of buttercream-frosted cake? They don’t call them “comfort foods” for nothing.
“I often see unmanaged stress lead to overeating and binging with my clients,” says Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYT, author of Nourish Your Namaste e-book and blogger at The Foodie Dietitian. “When we push away our basic needs for self-care — relaxation, spirituality, fun, sleep — we wind up feeling overexerted, depleted and stressed and turn to food as a way to fulfill an unmet need. Overeating because of stress often leads to more stress and anxiety and it becomes a vicious cycle.”
Given that, the results of a recent British study that found a link between long-term stress and obesity may not come as much of a surprise.
The study, conducted by researchers at University College London and published in the journal Obesity, looked at hair samples representing about two months of growth from more than 2,500 men and women age 54 and over participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing to determine the levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, present in the hair. The researchers found that those with higher levels of cortisol, which plays a role in metabolism and fat storage, were more likely to be overweight or obese – to have a larger waist circumference, weigh more and have a higher body-mass index.
Although the study found only an association and not evidence of cause or consequence, the study is important in light of the dangers of excess abdominal fat, including heart disease, diabetes and early death, lead author Sarah Jackson, a research associate in the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, maintains.
“I think the take-home message from our study is really to try and maintain awareness of healthy lifestyle habits during times of stress,” Jackson tells Healthy Eats. “When we’re stressed out we may find it more difficult to find the motivation to go for a run or resist unhealthy foods, and that’s when it is easier for weight to creep on.”
The study also underscores the need to find ways of curtailing stress or dealing with it in ways that don’t involve food, Jackson says.
Lydon agrees. She recommends that, when you feel compelled to binge or overeat in times of stress, that you pause and ask yourself the food you’re about to tuck into is really what you need. “Often times, taking a walk outside to connect with nature or taking a warm candlelit bath is enough to fulfill an unmet need and the craving subsides,” she says.
Because everyone is different, Lydon suggests making a list of non-food-related things that help you combat stress – and keeping them handy. “Things like yoga, deep breathing, meditation, going out with friends, coloring, venting to a loved one, or getting a hug can all release some stress,” she says.
And unlike that buttercreamy hunk of cake, a hug, while equally sweet, is calorie-free.
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.