The regular virtual 'hangouts' during the COVID-19 lockdowns revealed that many of our team's food choices had been a bit, well, 'questionable' whilst working from home.
It's nice to know that I'm not the only one on a slippery slope towards carb-rich and calorific foods, but why do times of heightened stress cause us to seek comfort in those so-called ‘bad’ foods and caffeinated liquids?
The link between stress and eating behaviours
The effects of stress appear to differ depending on the type of ‘stressor’ we’re experiencing. Studies investigating eating behaviours in response to stress have shown both decreased and increased intakes.
It appears that the perceived severity and duration of the stress are the two biggest influences on the dietary outcome:
Mildly challenging and time-limited stress
Stress which is mildly challenging and limited in duration can sometimes be considered positive as it can be motivating when task-related. It may also result in a greater feeling of accomplishment once the job is done and the stress has ceased.
This kind of short-term stress is often associated with a suppressed appetite because it stimulates the release of adrenaline, which triggers a revved-up psychological state known as the ‘fight-or-flight response’.
This inhibits gastric mobility and sparks the release of sugar into the bloodstream, thereby suppressing hunger.
Extreme and chronic stress
In contrast, extreme levels of stress or stress that becomes chronic can be damaging to our eating behaviours in an opposing way. Persistent stress triggers a greater release of the stress hormone cortisol via increased reactivity of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.
It’s believed to play a direct role in our food consumption by binding to receptors in the brain (specifically, the hypothalamus) and instigating signals which encourage greater caloric intake.
It’s often fat- and sugar-filled foods we find ourselves reaching for because these promote a feedback loop within the body that dampens the stress-related emotions and induces a temporary feeling of comfort (I know ginger nut biscuits have that effect for me!).
It’s been hypothesised that cortisol and stress increase the power of the rewarding value of food and it’s only natural that this increases food cravings.
Relatively speaking, food is an easily-available and inexpensive resource for quick, short-term stress relief so it’s easy to understand why so many of us turn to food when stress levels spike.
Stepping away from the ‘science’ for a moment, there’s also likely to be some logistical influences at play here.
High stress is often associated with being, or at least feeling like, you’re ‘time-poor’.
Between work, family, and general life admin, it’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that there’s never enough hours in the day. This alone can predispose us to seek out fast and convenient food options despite them perhaps lacking in nutrition.
How to prevent (or at least manage) “stress eating"
1. Reduce the stress in the first place - actively trying to reduce your stress levels (through ways which aren’t overeating!) is a good place to start. Here’s a few tried and tested ways:
- Meditation and other relaxation techniques e.g. deep breathing and yoga
- Exercise - both aerobic and anaerobic exercise is known to have stress-busting effects
- Social support - friends, family and other sources of social support can have buffering effects upon stress levels
- Get enough rest! Make sure you make sleep a priority.
2. Organise healthy meals and snacks ahead of time - Going back to the logistical roadblock that stress can be, pre-empting stressful periods (if possible) and being organised by planning healthy meals and snacks out for the week ahead will help ensure you don’t overindulge
3. Avoid the shops when you’re stressed (or tired or hungry for that matter!) - In these states, you’re much more likely to pick up easy, convenient food options which lead to overconsumption. If you don’t buy it then you’re less likely to have the bad foods close to hand later down the line.
4. Don’t let the odd treat or overindulgence dishearten you - There are many nutrition tips and tricks out there but the one I’ve always favoured is the idea of the 80/20 rule.
80 percent of the time, aim for nutrient-rich foods which provide you with a balanced intake but be comfortable with enjoying your ‘20 percent’.
Being conscious that you’re going to indulge means you don’t experience that same level of ‘guilt’ and feeling of failure. If the plan is to have a pizza followed by dessert on Friday night, then have it and enjoy it!
Of course, these things are always easier said than done and often periods of high stress are unpredictable, come out of the blue and are out of our control (which is what can make them so stress-inducing!) so the last point is extremely relevant....
5. Go easy on yourself!! - sometimes a period of stress just needs to be managed as well as it possibly can, and if your diet deteriorates in the short-term as a result then that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up and give yourself something else to stress over.
Caffeine and stress relationship
On top of stress impacting our eating behaviours, it also has a negative effect on how we sleep. Tiredness from lack of sleep leaves a lot of people turning to caffeine to perk them up.
Small-to-moderate amounts of caffeine are well-known to provide a boost to concentration, energy levels and mood which might be desirable during times of heightened stress (either to counteract a poor night’s sleep or in the hope of making us more focused and productive).
Whilst it can give us a much-needed temporary pick-me-up, it’s important to note that the relationship between stress and caffeine has a tipping point.
Excessive caffeine consumption can make you more susceptible to high levels of stress.
Too much caffeine can cause anxiety, insomnia, rapid heart rate, digestive issues and leave a person feeling deflated, low and craving another boost once the effects have worn off (up to 2-12 hours later depending on your body size, tolerance and metabolism).
These symptoms can all aggravate and prolong your stress levels, which is why the consumption of caffeine in times of stress should be considered a double-edged sword.
Caffeine, like stress, also increases cortisol levels in the body.
So what’s the solution?
If you’re struggling with high levels of stress, the answer doesn’t have to be cutting out all caffeine (unless that’s achievable and not detrimental to you).
If you’re like me though and you're someone who's pretty reliant on a cup or two of coffee in a morning then going ‘cold turkey’ may only impede your mood and productivity and heighten that feeling of stress further.
Instead, striving to be more stringent with yourself and your caffeine intake is what’s recommended:
- Limit your intake - Too much caffeine will increase cortisol levels and in some individuals might lead to health consequences. Not to mention that when you do try to cut your intake back again the withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant - we’re talking headaches, fatigue and muscle pain or stiffness!
This will differ from person-to-person and it obviously depends a lot on what source of caffeine is your poison but it’s suggested that any more than four cups of coffee a day (which is still a lot!) will increase your risk of dependence, so limiting your intake is smart.
- No caffeine after 2pm - Given that the effects of caffeine can last up to ~8 hours in a lot of people and sleep is of the utmost importance to managing our stress and physical and mental functioning, consuming caffeine after this time might impair your sleep quality and quantity.
Try to limit your caffeine intake to the morning or strongly limit it after this point.
- Caffeine before exercise or physical activity - Caffeine as an ergogenic aid (i.e. enhancing physical performance) has been well studied. On top of the magical stress-busting effects of exercise, consuming some caffeine before exercising can improve your session and be beneficial to your mood and productivity throughout the rest of the day, which in turn might help manage your stress levels and reduce your caffeine reliance.
Stressful periods in our lives can have a strong influence on our dietary choices and can be a cause for concern when it comes to our overall health and well-being.
Being aware of our behaviours and recognising our rising stress levels can make it easier to avoid turning to short-term fixes which can quickly become vicious cycles.
Take comfort from the knowledge that it’s something we all experience in our lives.
If this blog does nothing else, I hope it has provided some clarity on why you might be raiding the fridge a little more than usual and provided some useful ways to help prevent those short-term fixes becoming ingrained behaviours.
For more information on the links between stress and eating (and if it's your kind of thing), you can listen to me talk to coach Rob Wilby about stress-eating and plenty more besides on Episode 284 of the Oxygen Addict Podcast.