Stress refers to your body’s response to challenges that it may face. Stressors – factors leading to stress – can include everything from work to physical activity to family life to relationships to major life events or changes. Stress can be physical, mental, or emotional.
Perceived stress refers to the amount of stress that an individual feels he or she is under. Two people in the exact same situation may perceive the amount of stress caused by it completely differently. The degree to which stress is perceived will determine the degree to which a response is necessary to cope.
When faced with stressful situations, people have to find ways to cope appropriate with the level of stress perceived. Coping mechanisms may be different for everyone and wide-ranging, but one thing that many people turn to when faced with stress is food. Food offers a momentary escape or an immediate pleasurable experience in the midst of an unpleasant state, making it an attractive option for a quick fix to alleviate stress.
Stress can be acute or chronic – both of which can affect your diet.
- Acute stress refers to stress we experience for a brief amount of time. An example of this would be preparing for a big exam or presentation or running late for a meeting and being stuck in traffic. Acute stress is likely to increase your drive to eat even if you’re not hungry.
- Chronic stress refers to stress that is experienced continuously over an extended period of time – typically over the course of months. Chronic stress takes a major toll on health and creates a pro-inflammatory state associated with a variety of chronic diseases – most notably obesity. Research has shown that chronic stress affects the specific foods that are consumed; it alters the brain’s response to highly palatable foods and leads to an increased drive to seek out such foods and exhibit disinhibited eating practices.
A small amount of stress (called eustress) can be beneficial. It may help increase focus and tap into the motivation needed to accomplish a difficult task. When stress becomes overwhelming and constant, on the other hand, it affects your health and emotional state and almost certainly will affect your diet.
During times of mild stress, people are often driven to eat more. During times of extreme stress, like a major life change or traumatic event, however, people may have less of a desire to eat. Once again, the degree to which stress is perceived will make a big difference in regard to eating behaviour.
Stress typically affects the diet in two ways:
- It affects our behaviours around food, driving what and how much we eat.
- It creates the perfect scenario for fat storage and promotes an obesogenic state.
Stress management may naturally help support a more nutritious diet, as it’s likely to reduce the instances when one is driven to consume high-calorie or high-sugar foods and may also help balance the hormones related to appetite and weight regulation. This may lead to better dietary choices and eating a diet more in line with your caloric needs.
Incorporating mindfulness-based practices
- Breathing exercises
- Focusing on only what you can control
- Reducing Caffeine
- Organize your space to create a peaceful environment
- Tapping into your endorphins: laugh, dance, listen to music, whatever it takes!
Highly palatable foods may provide a form of short-term relief for some, but if the stressor isn’t addressed, preferences for these foods may strengthen and the risk for obesity may increase. Remember to always go back to the root cause. Determining how to alleviate stress can be difficult, but its impact on your health goes beyond your waistline and alleviating stress helps increase longevity, health, and happiness.