Stress as a killer of healthy eating habits

“Lately, I’m under a lot of stress at work. As you can imagine, they’ve been firing a lot of people, even those who have worked in the company for over ten years. I feel so
much tension that I know I’m not eating well. What should I do?”

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It’s not unusual for our mind and body to tense up when we’re under stress, especially during these difficult economic times. Yet if we don’t treat our body well, we’ll have an even bigger problem to think about – not only our current situation, which might not be great but our health and more doctor’s bills and/or medication and/or more days missing work.

And, what do we usually choose when we’re under stress? Let me share with you Ann’s story. Ann is a working, single Mom, trying to make ends meet with two jobs and two young children under the age of ten. For the past two weeks, due to stress at work, every morning she buys herself a large bar of chocolate with almonds – her favorite and eats it quickly, while gulping down her cup of coffee. The sweetness of that sweet makes her feel better, more peaceful. Same as Ann, many of us choose sweets, ice cream, a piece of cake when under stress.

Refined sugars and starches make us feel better for the short-term, we feel energized but after awhile, we’re back to our tension and then crave more and more sweets. It’s a vicious cycle – like a demon – not letting us rest in peace.

Sometimes we prefer fatty snacks, such as chips and french fries. Stress promotes our emotional eating – that automatic response to food, that’s always available. This makes our stress hormones cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin increase and like soldiers, they’re alert, ready to attack!

In 2010, a research conducted in the University of Michigan, showed that when the hormone cortisol increased because of stress, the patients tended to choose more fatty, salty and sugary snacks versus healthy options.
Also, stress leads to an uneven distribution of meals throughout the day, so there are fewer meals but those consumed have higher calories due to unhealthy choices. Planning ahead and making sure we have trail mix, fruits, smoothies, veggies, low-fat yogurt and cheese handy will make us feel better.

Usually, when under stress, we tend to forget about mindfulness, an essential concept where we really sit down to eat peacefully, slowly and enjoy our meals. Joy, a cardiac client describes her eating habits as a “tornado that sweeps through my body” and “I have no control over what I just ate or how much I ate” When we eat without mindfulness, we don’t really know what we’ve eaten, quantity nor quality.

If we want to take charge of our health, look for healthy substitutes that can decrease your levels of stress: maybe a walk or exercise, talking to a friend or loved one, relaxing on your own, listening to music.

Choose healthy options such as foods high in complex carbohydrates that have fiber – oats, whole grain cereals or pasta or brown rice. Choose good fats such as avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil over fatty snacks.

Avoid tempting snacks at home – don’t even hide them because under stress, you’ll choose those yummy treats versus a healthy smoothie!

Say STOP! Ask yourself: why am I eating right now? Am I really hungry? Am I enjoying my food? Am I eating slowly and with mindfulness? Or am I eating as if the devil is inside of me, pushing me to eat the wrong foods?

So, we might not be able to avoid stress but if we learn how to plan our meals throughout the week and maintain our immune system healthy, we can better prepare for the unexpected changes in our lives.