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Monday, February 6, 2012

Stop Stress Eating!

STOP stress eating!
There’s a scene in a movie in which two women are talking about relationship break-ups. One of the women says something along the lines of, “When you hear that, you just run to the store and buy some ribs and some ice cream because YOU have just been dumped.” Let me be clear: this is definitely not a blog about relationships but it is important to point out that we often run to foods like ribs and ice cream when we’re facing an emotional crisis, after a stressful day at work, or even to celebrate a happy occasion. If we’re going to succeed in our battle against the bulge (or even a battle against high cholesterol), we’ve got to stop treating food as a reasonable outlet for our emotional status.

According to one study, people who report feeling sad are twice as likely to eat high-calorie comfort foods when compared to their good-mood counterparts. Did that make your jaw drop? Probably not. Many of us recognize that we turn to cookies, ice cream or potato chips when we’re feeling blue – looking to food as a quick pick-me-up. But, what is surprising about this study is that when given the nutritional information of their comfort food, people who were feeling sad ate less than those who had found their happy place. Maybe people who were already feeling down didn’t want to feel worse by overindulging in high calorie foods or maybe they realized the old adage, “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”, holds some truth. No matter the reason, reading nutrition labels might just curb your appetite for indulgence when you’re feeling down.

It isn’t just the bad times that send people running to the all-you-can-eat buffet. In the event of happy times that warrant celebration, when’s the last time you didn’t make merry with a potluck, dessert, or dinner out with family and friends? Birthdays, holidays, and, yes, even Super Bowls often lead to over-doing the high calorie goodies. One study found that people who were focused on past happy events (like reliving last week’s promotion) were more likely to indulge in unhealthy foods. So, the next time you have a reason to celebrate, do so at an event that isn’t food-centered. Also, try to focus on living in the present moment. While you can (and should) take time to enjoy life’s happy moments, keep your focus on this day and the rewards of staying on the healthy track.

You may already know that both celebrations and sadness make you more prone to indulgence. But, before you swear off office parties and just-been-dumped get-togethers, know that there are some serious biological factors at play here. Ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone”, is released when your stomach is empty and triggers your body to recognize hunger and eat. We also know that ghrelin is triggered in response to stress, making you feel the need to eat more when you’re anxious. A recent study found that this same hormone is responsible for making you crave high calorie comfort foods in response to stress. In the study, mice that were subjected to stress and able to respond to ghrelin were more likely to gravitate to high fat foods. However, mice that were genetically engineered and were unable to receive messages from the hunger hormone showed no preference to high-fat foods.

Since we really can’t go in and rewire our brains to ignore ghrelin, what can we do to avoid running to the arms of our favorite comfort foods in the face of stress? And, remember, stress can be the stuff we normally associate with our busy schedules and high-pressure jobs; but stress can also be positive reactions to promotions, a new house, or a new job. Here are some strategies to help you eliminate the emotional rush to food:
  • Exercise. It’s one of the best ways to help you cope with stress. Plus, the endorphins released during exercise will boost your mood if you’re feeling blue.
  • Read your labels. As one of the above studies notes, reading the nutrition information will help you keep your eye on the prize: a healthy you.
  • Journal. Jotting your feelings, good or bad, down on paper helps you clear your mind and feel more at ease. Letting go of these emotions will help you make better decisions and will help you avoid the pitfalls of emotional eating.
  • Spend time with friends & family, just don’t do it over a meal! Get together for a walk, go to the gym together, or go to a movie (but be sure to pass on the popcorn).

Yes, it’s important to celebrate life’s successes and it’s equally important to honor your emotions following the not-so-great things that happen to us. The key is to find a way to celebrate or commiserate without indulging in high-calorie foods that will de-rail your get-healthy plans!