Why we turn to food when we’re stressed & what we can do instead

by Mallary Jean Tenore

I stumbled across a new blog the other night that I can’t stop looking at. “Design Love Fest” is run by Bri Emery, a designer “who entertained an early passion for design and typography by keeping inspiration journals of curated images torn from magazines and scotch taped together.” I love that description and many of Emery’s posts, including this one about stress. Emery says she tries to relieve stress by:

  • Stepping away from the computer.
  • Making dinner.
  • Drinking a glass of wine.
  • Cuddling (with a significant other, pet, pillow).
  • Eating.

“When I am eating, life seems the least stressful to me,” Emery writes. “I can focus on how amazing those potatoes were and not some silly work drama.”

Many commenters said they, too, turn to food and drinks to relieve stress:

  • I second the eating remedy. Works miracles! In addition to eating, doing something for ME (i.e. pedi, reading, couch potato-ing)
  • Copious amounts of hot drinks: tea, chocolate, chai. Anything goes. But also the wine. It does work like a charm.
  • Cheese & chocolate (lots of it!!)
  • Wine, a good meal with the hubby and then maybe some TV or a movie in pj’s with ice cream – the best!
  • Some lunch/drinks/dinner with the girls is always a good distractor.
  • Read a good book, watch a good movie, take a nap, write, go to Starbucks, throw a a party, and yes – eat or cook or both!
  • A nice long walk, a great cup of coffee.
  • I love coming home and cooking up a great dinner. It is so relaxing and it helps me feel like I’m taking good care of myself (rather than eating a blah-tasting frozen microwave dinner). Top it off with a glass of wine and some great music and I’m all set.
  • Wine is definitely the number one stress buster followed closely with chopping veggies.
  • I’ve had a motto most of my life – “stressed spelled backwards is desserts.” Eat a brownie and everything will be alright.

The comments speak to the tension between our emotional and physical needs, which are often in conflict with each other when we’re stressed. A 2007 American Psychological Association survey found that almost half the people in the U.S. say they overeat or eat unhealthy foods to help manage stress. 65% said they turn to chocolate and candy; 56% eat ice cream; 53% eat chips; 49% eat cookies and cakes; and 46% eat fast food. For as comforting as eating can be, it can also cause undue stress. We eat a few cookies and then start worrying about our looks, comparing ourselves to others, or beating ourselves up for breaking the “food rules” we’ve created for ourselves.

Eating junk food can be a form of rebellion. When we’re stressed, we have an excuse to break the rules and indulge in foods that we’ve told ourselves we shouldn’t eat. We find excuses: I’ve had a hard day; I don’t have time to cook something healthy; I ate healthy yesterday; I deserve a slice of chocolate cake! And sometimes, because we can, we overdo it. We eat too much unhealthy food and then we feel physically sick or emotionally disgusted. We wonder how we lost control.

It turns out, there’s a whole psychology behind the foods we choose to eat when we’re stressed. Psychologists Leonard and Lillian Pearson divide foods into two categories: “beckoners” and “hummers.” Beckoners are foods that we eat out of convenience, not necessarily because we want them but because they’re readily available. They’re the tacos we buy after stumbling across a food truck; the hot pretzels we smell and then buy in the airport; the free samples we eat at the grocery store because they’re there and, hey, they’re free.

Hummers, on the other hand, are foods that we know we want before seeing or smelling them. They’re often specific — a grilled cheese sandwich with two slices of tomato; a bowl of hot minestrone soup with Oyster crackers; our mom’s mac and cheese. Hummers satisfy us both physically and emotionally, unlike the foods we crave and then binge on.

Author Geneen Roth, who has written several books about the connections between emotions and food, explains:

“When certain foods match certain moods or situations, they are hummers. Sometimes when I’m hungry and lonely, I want a baked potato; its fluffiness and warmth comfort me. My friend Sue eats meatloaf, peas and mashed potatoes when she’s hungry and sad. Her mother often fixed that meal for the family when Sue was growing up, and now, when she’s hungry and needs comforting, that combination of foods hums to her. ‘But it has to be frozen peas,’ she says, ‘like my mother used. Otherwise it won’t work.’

“Note that I paired the emotions I mentioned — loneliness and sadness — with hunger. If Sue weren’t hungry when she turns to meatloaf and mashed potatoes, she’d be bingeing, not choosing what hums to her. There’s a difference. When you eat hummer foods, you’re satisfying both your body and your mind. Once you’re done, you’re done. No risk of overeating because you’ve eaten exactly what satisfies you.”

The key is to listen to our body and figure out what we really want. Do we want a slice of pizza, or are we just craving it because we feel lonely and stressed? Are we eating a doughnut because we’ve been wanting one, or just because it’s readily available? Are we pretending we’re not hungry for dessert because we want to look like we have self control, or are we really not hungry? These are tough questions to answer, especially in the moment. And they’re even tougher to answer when we’ve spent half our life trying to tell our body what it should and shouldn’t have rather than listening to what it wants and needs.

For 15 years, I’ve used food as a way to cope with stress — either by not eating or eating too much. I’ve created so many rules and bad habits around food that it’s hard to genuinely enjoy eating.  I’ve told myself I can’t eat certain foods and have pretended not to want them, only to eat them in excess behind closed doors. I want to do a better job of stopping myself when I feel tempted to binge and asking: “What am I feeling right now, and why am I feeling that way? What else can I do to relieve my stress?”

My goal for the next few weeks is to practice asking for help when I need it rather than trying to deal with everything on my own. It helps to have a friend or loved one who you can reach out to when you feel like you’re about to have a hard time. Reaching out to them can help you break away from your impulse. And the responses you get — a compliment perhaps, or a note of encouragement — can be good reminders that you’re loved and that you aren’t weak for acknowledging you need help.

While many of the people who commented on the “Design Love Fest” post said they turn to food to relieve stress, just as many said they turn to family and friends. Sometimes being — and eating — with people we love is the best remedy of all.

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