This month is stress awareness month and a common way to help relieve stress is to eat. Sometimes called comfort eating or emotional eating it’s something we are all guilty of at times. Every Hollywood movie ever sees our heroine reaching for a bucket of ice cream the moment she faces a stressful situation.
What do we mean by comfort eating or emotional eating?
Comfort eating or emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better. Food fills an emotional need rather than a physical hunger. It often makes you feel better in the short term, a quick sugar hit, but as it doesn’t ‘fix’ the way you are feeling it can often make you feel worse in the longer term. Also, the foods we tend to comfort eat are the ones that aren’t great for us – chocolate, pizza, biscuits. I don’t think I have ever faced heartache and comforted myself with a plate of broccoli.
Comfort eating also makes us ‘size blind’. Because we aren’t satisfying a physical hunger we often eat mindlessly, so before you know it you have eaten an entire packet of chocolate biscuits. When you comfort eat you don’t pay attention or fully enjoy what you eat and often eat until you are uncomfortably stuffed. It also becomes a vicious circle; you eat because you are stressed, you overeat, you feel completely stuffed then feel guilty or ashamed when faced with the empty biscuit packet which makes you feel stressed again.
The first step in putting a stop to comfort eating is to identify your personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food?
Stress is one of the biggest culprits. When we are stressed our body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
What works for me?
Rather than reach for a chocolate biscuit after a particularly stressful event I dance to a favourite song. I know it sounds a bit odd, but it works for me. The music lifts my mood, especially if I pick a song that is upbeat and provokes great memories. The physical act of dancing also helps, it’s almost as if I’m shaking the stress out of my body. The cortisol is replaced by endorphins, also known as the happy hormone. When we dance our brain releases endorphins, these hormones trigger neurotransmitters that create a feeling of comfort, relaxation, fun and power. Music and dance do not only activate the sensory and motor circuits of our brain, but also the pleasure centres. I find it impossible to dance to a favourite song and not smile.
So, if you are feeling a like stressed instead of munching on a chocolate bar why not try dancing like no one is watching.