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Question Your World: Why does stress eating feel good?

Stress-eating is basically a person’s tendency to cope with anxiety, anger or depression through snacking. It turns out that there are some physiological mechanisms that can help explain why stress-eating junk food makes us feel better. Why does stress eating feel good?  

 

Let's face it, it's a stressful world out there. As the global pandemic continues to impact public health, economics, schools, family scheduling and beyond, there are ample opportunities to find yourself overwhelmed. A lot of times people turn to food to help make those times a bit more comforting. 

Neuroscientists and biologists have spent decades trying to better understand the brain and today's topic is perhaps one of the most relatable ones in neuroscience: stress eating. Emotional eating isn’t just someone being dramatic, roughly ⅔ of all people do this to some extent.

When you’re experiencing heightened stresses, food can feel like your best friend, but it's doing three things for your brain:

  1. It’s a distraction! Sure, trouble at work is stressful, but cookies and Doritos TASTE SO GOOD and distracts the mind from fully dwelling in surrounding stresses.
  2. Eating boosts positive feelings. As you sink your teeth into that delicious Hot Pocket, your pleasure center in your brain is going off and releasing positive biochemicals like dopamine!  
  3. Eating relaxes you! Eating diverts energy from the brain toward digestion, thus putting your brain in the “rest and digest” mode, way less stressful than just thinking about a problem nonstop. Food also makes us physically tired from the work and energy it takes for digestion to happen. You know how you get sleepy after a big meal? Yep, same thing.

Over eating or stress eating can have negative long term impacts, of course, ranging from dwindling general health to scarier stuff like heart and circulatory system problems. Scientists encourage individuals to address this issue by taking care of two things: the stress and the food. 

The overwhelming stress is the real issue here. Health professionals might be able to help individuals work through how to manage stress and ways to combat anxiety. In terms of food, plan for more healthy snack items in your fridge and eat regularly planned, balanced meals to avoid stress eating or that amazing human experience of being hangry

As the global pandemic continues to put everyone’s physical health in the spotlight don’t forget your mental health goes a long way, too. Consider this some food for thought. 

 

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