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Stress Eating: Can a plant-based diet help combat stress?

Emotional eating is a pattern of eating where people use food to help them deal with the stress in their lives. 

At one time or another most people experience stress eating - be it eating a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps after a hard day at work.

However, when stress eating becomes more frequent and a main solution for how someone deals with their emotions - in turn their life, health, happiness, and weight can be impacted negatively. However ensuring you have good stores of nutrients means you can manage your psychological, mental, and emotional stress responses more successfully.

What is stress eating? 

When a person becomes overwhelmed a natural reaction is to feel stressed. Stress is how the brain and body respond to challenges, it is the unnerving feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. Many of life’s demands can cause stress, particularly work, relationships, and money problems. People handle life's stresses in different ways.

Our brains send cues to our bodies when we’re feeling stressed. That’s part of our fight-or-flight response that helps us deal with perceived threats in our environment, Dr. Albers says. A common reaction to stress is the sudden urge to eat food, and usually this is the wrong kind of food. 

When you’re feeling stressed, your body sends out cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress. Consuming foods that are of a ‘junk’ nature increase the volume of stress on your body. Skipping meals, having a high caffeine intake and ‘convenience‘ foods all impact the body in this way. 

Why we all do it 

There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:

  • High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If your stress continues a hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.

  • Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.

  • Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.

A range of feelings and factors are triggers for overeating - not just stress. Other common triggers include:

  • Fatigue: It can be so easy to eat mindlessly or overeat when you are feeling fatigued, or bored. Food can seem like the answer to not wanting to do a particular activity anymore.

  • Social influences: It is easy to be influenced to overeat when with family and friends. We have all been in that situation where we're encouraged to get that pizza after a night out, go for drinks after work or reward the weekend with a gluttonous meal out.

  • Boredom: Many people live very active lives, and when this drops and they are less busy they will automatically turn to eating to fill that void. Being bored and having nothing to do is a very common stress eating trigger.

  • Habits: An activity often driven by nostalgia, such as having an ice cream after a good report or baking with your parents, can trigger stress eating as it takes you back to childhood. 

Stress eating and hunger 

Stress can also affect our food preferences. Many studies have shown that emotional or physical stress can increase the  intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High insulin levels, in combination with high cortisol levels could be responsible, other studies have suggested that the “hunger hormone”  ghrelin may have a role.

Foods high in sugar and fat have a feedback effect that can dampen stress related emotions and responses, commonly known as “comfort foods”. These foods seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people's stress-induced craving for those foods.

Of course, overeating isn't the only stress-related behaviour that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to excess weight.

Listen to your body 

To overcome stress eating, the first step a person needs to do is recognise the situations and triggers that cause stress to their lives. To help identify situations when someone is more likely to eat because of stress triggers than physical hunger, it is recommended to keep a food diary or journal to keep track of this. Tracking their habits is another way someone can gain insight into their eating habits.

What can you do to reduce stress?

  • Regular exercise - releases endorphins which can help regulate your sleep, boost energy and help you maintain focus, all of which can aid stress management. 

  • Meditation - the practice of focused concentration, brings yourself back to the moment over and over again, which can address stress.

  • Deep breathing - Consciously lengthen your breath, breathing deeper into the belly. Count to three on the in-breath, and four on the out-breath. 

  • Yoga - Some positions are particularly effective for promoting relaxation, tension and relief.

  • Get some sun - a daily dose of sunshine might help stabilise your mood as well as give you a vitamin D boost. 

  • Take a bath - Water has an innate soothing effect on the mind and body. Try an Epsom salt bath rich in magnesium.

  • Tell someone who cares - Being heard and understood by someone who cares for you, even if they can't physically help, will reduce stress levels. 

  • Balanced diet – increasing plant-based foods will reduce your stress levels. Food provides the support and building blocks our bodies needed to lower stress hormones and balance our bodies. By eating a smart plant-based diet, you can reduce your stress and improve your health. 

It can also be helpful to talk to a therapist or psychologist to discuss other ways to break the cycle of stress eating. A doctor, nutritionist or expert may also be able to provide additional information on creating a better relationship with food and positive eating habits.

Make Healthy Choices 

Dietary intervention can be a very effective, cheap and a natural remedy to stress. Whether you realise or not, by choosing what you eat, you are also choosing how to treat your body. So switch out the fatty, sugary and refined foods and try these healthier 3 plant-based alternatives and notice the difference. 

  • Almonds are rich in magnesium, an important mineral for supporting stress-related symptoms. Having enough magnesium is also known to help with better sleep, obtaining a good night's sleep is such an important aspect of reducing stress and anxiety. 
  • Blueberries are a great source of vitamin C, which is a vital vitamin we need. It protects as well as repairs our cells. This is extremely important, especially when we are under stress. Having a daily vitamin C shot  could help alleviate the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
  • Cashews provide some impressive anti-anxiety benefits too. They are a great source of zinc which is a mineral shown to help lower symptoms of anxiety. It can be difficult to source these vital minerals in your daily diet, that's why our delicious milkshakes  are an easy and tasty way to ensure we are looking after our mind and our bodies. 

Food can be medicine. Eating plant-based food can help you lower stress, recover from stress-induced illness, and stay calm throughout the day, as well as sleep better at night. 

With such an abundance of stress relieving benefits offered by plant-based products, why not try our selection of soups and juices and enjoy today!

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