Stress is everywhere, and chronic stress is known to be harmful not only to
our emotional health, but also to our physical health. It can affect the
immune system (making us sick more often), the heart (causing high blood
pressure and other heart problems), and muscles (causing problems with
neck, shoulder, and low-back pain), to name just a few concerns.
It can also be linked to overeating, and so contributes to obesity.
Stress eating is a common problem in our fast-paced world, although many
people believe they are alone when it comes to this issue. In reality,
most people have a tendency to overeat when moderately stressed. That can
make controlling food portions particularly difficult.
There may be physiological reasons why we tend to eat more and eat certain
types of foods when we are under chronic stress. For example, research
suggests that certain brain functions linked to chronic stress compel us to
eat. Stress can also compel us to eat faster, potentially increasing the
amount we eat even more.
The types of foods we’re more likely to reach for at times of stress are
the sugary and starchy favorites we might call “comfort foods.’’ These have
properties that affect the brain in soothing ways, making us feel better
and reinforcing eating when we are under stress. So you see — you’re not
alone. It’s just how our bodies are wired to deal with chronic stress.
It’s essential to identify whether stress is driving your overeating. If
you try to control portions with tricks like using smaller plates, but
don’t address the real reason for overeating, such tricks won’t help.
Here’s a quiz to help you decide if it’s stress that’s eating you:
• Do you get irritated over minor things?
• Do you often feel anxious, jittery, and “hyper.”
• Do people get on your nerves often?
• Is it difficult to control your temper.
• Is it hard to focus on and remember things?
• Are you constantly worrying and thinking about the next thing you have
If you see yourself in these signs of stress and are having problems with
portion control, there may be a link. We can’t eliminate stress from our
lives but we can learn to manage it.
Here are some tips for reducing stress and portions:
• Take deep breaths throughout the day, especially before eating.
• Slow down eating by savoring your food. Focus on the sight, smell,
and taste of your meal before swallowing it.
• Try to be mindful if you find yourself feeling “hyper” and
purposefully slow down your movements and actions. You’ll find that you’ll
still get plenty done.
• Look at the big picture. Remind yourself of what’s really important
in your life. Perhaps what you’re worrying about really isn’t as important
as you think.
• Remind yourself of what chronic stress can do to your health.
• Manage hunger by eating sensible meals on a regular schedule. Being
hungry just adds to any other stress you’re carrying around and causes more
• Watch the servings. A brain under stress thinks it needs more food
than the body really demands. So, if stressed, serve less than your brain
is telling you. Wait 20 minutes after having eaten slowly. If you’re still
hungry, have a little more and savor that, too.
• Exercise has repeatedly been shown not only to be a great fat-burner but
also a highly effective stress buster and appetite reducer. Make the time
to use this powerful health tool.
• Do something relaxing every day. Sit outside, meditate, practice yoga,
play – do anything that makes you feel at peace, comfortable, and focused
on the present moment.
Take a deep breath, address the stress in your life, and start on the road
to a healthier lifestyle and natural portion control.
Previously published in the St. Petersburg Times