Faced With Stress, Some Turn to Food


By Krystalle Pinilla

It’s that time of the semester again. You know, the time when you feel like the sky is falling, oxygen is fading, and you’re losing your grip on your to-do list. It’s time for Finals.

For many, this short-term induced stress will produce higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, that will inevitably lead to stress eating—but why?

During stressful situations, and moments of panic, our body’s adrenal glands release higher levels of cortisol rise as the body tries to figure out if to choose “fight or flight.”

Cortisol can increase blood sugar, may suppress the immune system and, also, can act as an anti-inflammatory compound. This all can lead to weight gain as the brain struggles on how to counteract the rise.

So what’s it going to be: fight or flight?

If you’re like most people you’re going for flight. Flight all the way into a stress-induced kitchen raid to avoid the problem at hand.

Katherine Bourgeois, a junior at Florida State University, says school deadlines and projects at the beginning of the semester is what stress her out the most. So, she turns to leftovers in her fridge as she avoids the stress.

“This helps me occupy my time doing something else,” she says.

Jose Sandoval, PhD, psychologist and Board Certified Holistic Health Coach, has previously worked on college campuses including the University of Miami and Florida International University, and says one of the top reasons students would come see him was for test anxiety.  

That anxiety can lead to increased cortisol in your brain.

Basically, anything that the brain interprets as dangerous, ranging from being held at gunpoint, to realizing you have an exam in a few hours that you don’t feel prepared for, your body will respond by overproducing cortisol in the brain. This leads to the body wanting to attend to basic needs.

“As humans we first have to attend to our basic needs for security and part of that [security] is shelter and food,” Sandoval says.

So what can you do to prevent the end of the semester weight gain?

Push away the instant gratification and focus on the real problem

Sandoval believes that stress eating, especially when it involves sugar, can be thought of in a similar way to an addiction. In order to break this emotional coping strategy of eating something sugary when stressed, you must find alternative problem-solving methods. If you’re stressed, what can actually help? Tutoring? A friend helping you with your homework? Studying a little longer before the exam?

Think about the snack you’re picking

Your brain is only about two pounds and about 60 percent fat but uses 25 percent of your daily caloric intake, according to Sandoval. For this reason it’s important to aim for healthy fats.

Strive for snacks like nuts, seeds, almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, jerky and sardines. By eating foods like these, you can guarantee that you won’t be hungry again as quickly as you would be if you ate a sugary treat. Especially when considering that sugary snacks release endorphins and that’s why they’re addictive.

Give yourself some space and think long-term

Jack Soll, a registered marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, who specializes with overeating, says you need to give yourself some space.

“We tend to stress eat because life, indeed, is stressful,” he says.

Soll explains that one of the coping skills that we develop early on is the use of substances whether it’s in an abusive manner or not.

Fries, chips, cookies and ice cream are all go-to’s during a stress episode. While people think these snacks are comforting during times of need, we all know (too well, I might add) the immediate guilt after.

“Most of us are unconscious to stimulus’s– we’re sad, we’re angry, we’re tired, we’re hurt, we’re something and then the automatic response is to eat,” Soll says.

This space is intended to give us a moment to evaluate if this snack will fix the problem at hand or not. By doing so, one can reprogram the system to learn that instead of picking up a harmful habit when stressed, like eating or smoking a cigarette, you instead turn to something more productive like hobbies, hanging out with friends, etc.

“What we need to do is put a space there and in that space is the opportunity to be more conscious to make more informed decisions,” Soll says.

Moderate Exercise and Meditation

Another outlet for feelings of stress is exercise and meditation. Sandoval recommends any type of movement.

“Move your body,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon. Doesn’t mean you have to go do a 5k— it just means move your body; walk.”  
According to Sandoval, doing cardio for half an hour, three times a week and meditating for 20 minutes each day can be more effective than medication in the cases of anxiety and depression.

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