When work stresses you to the max, what’s your intuitive response? Do you scour the break room for party leftovers or boost your emotions in healthy-conscious ways?

Truth is, if you’re using food as a crutch for healing stress, you’re like other Americans whose appetites go into overdrive when they’re uptight. In fact, eating is such a common response that 40% of people, according to estimates, consume more than normal when they’re anxious; 73% say it’s all about increasing snacks.

As a nurse, you already know that emotional or overeating is never a cure-all for what ails you. It can lead to multiple health problems, torpedo your self-esteem, and mask other issues.

“Overeating is a coping mechanism that suppresses stress rather than dealing with it head on, says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of AmyGorinNutrition.com and contributing blogger to WeightWatchers.com. “Fortunately, you can retrain your behaviors to deal with it in a healthier way.”

So, how do you chart a nutritious course from stress eater to stress non-eater? By understanding your eating triggers and then building a new plan for dealing with them!

All in the Body

Scientists are still plotting the intricate relationship between appetite and emotional well-being. Yet evidence thus far suggests that when you overeat under stress, you’re likely responding to both physiological and psychological signals.

How much can be attributed to your head? It appears a substantial amount since your brain triggers a complicated chemical cascade dictating events. That includes directing your appetite to stay quiet, come alive, or even crave those highly refined, fatty, sugary, or salty foods that are comfort.

Obviously, structures play roles. Studies have shown, for instance, that the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which governs the stress response, is overactive in some people and could influence their hunger perception and drive to eat. Yet to get the ball rolling, your brain signals your adrenal glands to pump out adrenalin and cortisol, neurotransmitters that help energize you for the fight plus govern your appetite. Adrenalin temporarily suppresses your hunger while cortisol eventually reboots it and may be partially responsible for cravings. What’s driving that train? Studies suggest high cortisol levels along with elevated insulin and ghrelin, the hunger hormone, increase your desire for fatty, sugary, and/or salted foods.

Programming Counts

So if everyone undergoes the same biochemical chain of events, why do some people gravitate to food, especially fatty and sugary options, while others keep their distance? For starters, individual appetites and coping mechanisms are simply wired differently. Since stress is an emotional response to internal or external threats, it’s logical that your psychological profile and personal traits come into play. Food may have greater meaning for you than for others because it’s been a Band-Aid, a prize, or a family ritual. You revert because it is comfort!

“People who overeat under stress get a higher sense of reward from food than people who don’t overeat,” says Joey Gochnour, BS, BS, MEd, RDN, LD, NASM-CPT, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and certified personal trainer for RecSports at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s as much habit as it is biological. And even if they weren’t raised with the habit, they’ve discovered that a particular food makes them happy and so they want to go to that happy place. It gives them a sense of euphoria.’” Adds Charmaine C. Jones, MS, RDN, LDN, the founder and CEO of Food Jonezi: “Stress can cause you to revert to what’s felt good in the past. Why is it often food? Because it’s flavorful and effortless.”

Even if you’re not getting such cues, you still may be driven to certain foods because they really do give you a positive jolt. That’s in part because they signal the body to release chemicals that participate in elevating your spirit. Eating influences endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. When you ingest something you like, they flood the zone, so to speak. Your body may crave high fat or sugary foods because they signal other pleasure-causing chemicals. “If you crave carbs when your mood is low,” says Jones, “your brain may be asking for a serotonin boost.”

So if you’ve been hardwired to reach for your favorite comfort food how do you change that dynamic? By replacing old habits with new ones you boost your overall well-being, which supports a healthier stress response. With a balanced diet, a healthy food milieu, and a better attitude toward your options, you’ll no longer have to wing it in an emotional eating pinch!

Think Dietary Balance

When it comes to relieving stress you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. A diet reflecting the major food group infuses your body with the macro- and micronutrients necessary to support your physical health and mental well-being. In fact, by focusing on wholesome eating patterns, you’ll likely score big on the individual nutrient front. “We’re really working with nutritional density,” says Charlotte Hammond, MS, RD, LDN, RYT, Chicago-based registered dietitian. “We’re trying to get as much bang for our buck as possible.”

She suggests five foundational “mood foods”—eggs, fish, beans, leafy greens, and nuts/figs—that keep the body running smoothly and have a calming effect. Besides checking blood pressure and glucose, they supply nutrients—e.g., vitamin A plus folate and other B complex vitamins—known to boost serotonin. They’re also linked to dopamine and its precursor tyrosine, which promote pleasurable moods and feelings.

When added to the mix, whole grains, fruits, and other selected foods expand the universe of wholesome carbohydrate and other sources to feed your energy and cravings with nutrient staying power. “You have a lot of control and options with the food groups,” says Torey Armul, MS, RDN, CSSD, national spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “That variety is important because we want people to have an array of flavors and enjoy what they eat.”

Build a Healthy Milieu

Since eating nutritiously is especially important when you’re anxious, you want to put a structure in place that facilitates your choices. “It’s not just about anticipating those moments of stress, but also about building an environment around you with food that encourages and supports your goals,” explains Armul. That not only means creating an eating plan that meets your nutrient and energy expectations, but also structuring a food schedule that keeps healthy sources flowing.

Even though you may have little control over snack and lunch breaks, start the day with breakfast so you’re not playing catch up. “If you don’t eat a good breakfast it sabotages the rest of the day,” says Angel C. Planells, MS, RDN, the owner of ACP Nutrition in Seattle. “By lunchtime, you’re famished and by dinnertime you don’t even care anymore. You’re just going to eat what’s appealing.”

Make Peace with Stress, Food

Since your health status is dependent on what you eat and what you eat is often governed by stress, tackling underlying issues that might ruffle your feathers needs to be a priority. Achieving your health goals or even negotiating smart food decisions can be difficult without the attention. “People make short-term choices when they’re highly stressed and long-term choices when they’re less so,” Hammond says. “That’s the crux of sticking with a plan. When you’re not stressed you make healthier selections.”

In fact, dietitians often focus on an individual’s internal wherewithal rather than diets and other cues to coax them into developing a better relationship with mind, body, and food. For instance, among the 10 principles Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch MS, RDN, outline in their book, Intuitive Eating, “honor your hunger” and “make peace with food” are key. By feeding your body when it’s ready and not depriving yourself of your options, you can stave off the cravings.

You also make wiser choices, say other dietitians, by tracking your mood triggers—those events that set off the overeating—while being mindful of your food behaviors. When hunger strikes, for instance, knowing that the pangs are physical and not emotional can help you control your eating habits. Also, by savoring each bite you cue your body to digest leisurely until you’re really full.

“You don’t have to be a master at it,” Jones says, “but once you recognize your stressors, you can control how you respond to them. That can be empowering.”

The Bottom Line

A balanced diet of nutritionally laden foods has sweeping advantages for your physical and mental health, including how you respond to stress. But you also need to incorporate other stress relievers: Walk. Meditate. Call a friend. Whatever you choose, by redirecting your responses, you won’t reach for that donut or party leftover. You’ll opt for nutritious and other intuitive strategies including new comfort foods!

“Many people say ‘I have a problem with food because I love it,’” says Hammond. “My response is, “That’s not a problem. That’s our solution. We just need you to love great healthy food.’”

Chris Hinz

Chris Hinz is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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