Stress and Food Cravings
Do you ever find yourself wandering through the grocery store aisles looking for something sweet or salty? You don't even know what you're looking for, but you have this craving that won't go away. The human brain is such a fantastic organ; it controls how we interpret our senses like smell and sight, our thoughts, physical sensations and body actions. When we eat, our brain crafts memories about our eating experiences. Cues in our environment can activate memories of the pleasurable experience. In some stressful situations, pleasurable memories can lead to cravings.
When the body is under stress, the desire for unhealthy food increases. When stressed out, there is a tendency to grab unhealthy foods over healthy ones. Stress can change a person’s eating behaviors and increase the desire for highly palatable foods. Highly palatable foods tend to be high in fat, sugar and salt. Our brains have a reward center; high palatable foods (which are high in calories) stimulate the brain reward center more than low-calorie foods such as fruit or vegetables.
The hormone cortisol is released during periods of stress and increases appetite. When the body is under repetitive stress, levels of cortisol can remain high, which can further alter appetite changes. A study investigated stress-induced cortisol and eating behaviors and found that women had a higher caloric intake and consumed more sweet and high-fat foods compared to participants who had low cortisol reactivity. Even under acute stress situations, eating patterns can be distorted. An increased desire for desserts, snacking and high palatable food intake can be exacerbated during stressful situations. It should be noted that not everyone responds to stress the same way; some may have a decreased appetite. Nonetheless, chronic stress can contribute to abdominal fat, irregular eating patterns, an increased risk for obesity and a change in food preferences; it can also intensify addiction susceptibility. Studies show that stress-driven eating has more of an effect on women who are obese compared to lean women. How can you control the cravings for high palatable foods? The brain is plastic. Not plastic like your grocery bag, but the brain can be shaped and molded; it can learn new behaviors regardless of age. Certain situations can trigger poor food choices or overeating. Keep a journal and note the time of day your cravings occur. This may help you identify what triggers those desires. Get plenty of rest and incorporate stress management techniques such as exercise and mindful mediation into your daily routine. Finally, prepare and carry nutritious snacks with you.
To get started, try a few snack jar ideas. How does Greek yogurt, berries, pomegranates and granola sound or a layered rainbow salad? The snack combo possibilities are endless. And guess what? You can create your own healthy, fresh snacks in minutes. Plus, the jars range in various sizes, are easy to clean and great to take with you wherever you go.
Written by: Nadine Brooks, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern. Learn more about the Wellness Workdays Dietetic Internship.