With the rising number of obese people who defend their binge-eating habit to combat with stress by stating “stressed spelt backwards is desserts”, obesity is touted to be the newest and most widespread (pun intended!) epidemic. While there are many causes of obesity, one cause that is especially of concern in the mental wellness community is that of stress.
According to the World Health Organization, if an individual’s body mass index (BMI) is 30 and above then s/he is considered to be obese. Stress or more accurately distress as mentioned in the Weber’s dictionary is “a state of mental and emotional discomfort resulting from adverse or demanding situations”.
The major theory associated with binge-eating to combat stress is that of the Psycho-Somatic Theory of Obesity by Kaplan & Kaplan, which contends that in times of distress, food is used as an emotional defense, which in turn leads to obesity.
A stressed individual in the modern times is often times turning to consuming copious quantities of what is termed as “comfort food” e.g. high calorie grub like ice cream, fried greasy food etc. This phenomenon has been most aptly termed by Robert Thayer (writer of Calm Energy: How people regulate mood with food and exercise), as “emotional/stress eating” where one turns to food to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, loneliness or plain boredom. Scientifically speaking long-term emotional eating does no good and before you know it, you will have a spare tyre of fat around your waistline and several other co-morbidities that being obese brings with it.
Occasionally using food as a pick me up isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it does help in combating the fatigue given rise by a tsunami wave of mental stress, but using it as an escape or a coping mechanism is inappreciable. Emotional hunger unlike physical hunger where just about anything edible will do, can only be satiated by specific comfort foods that provide an instant rush of sugar/carbs. While researching eating patterns among people during my days at the hospital, I had observed that emotional eaters specifically craved ice-cream and could go through an entire tub without having realized or enjoyed it. When questioned about it, several young patients casually revealed that they saw in movies that depressed people ate ice-cream and felt better almost instantaneously (for e.g. all statements on the media such as “I refuse to go through a breakup or failure without some ice-cream or some sinful chocolate cake”).
The science behind emotional eating:
In an independent research conducted by Selena Nguyen-Rodriguez, Jennifer B. Unger and Donna Spruijt-Metz which studied 666 adolescents in Los Angeles, it was revealed that perceived stress, worries, tension and anxiety were associated with emotional eating in the entire sample. This throws light on the fact that prevention and treatment of stress related obesity would benefit from stress reduction techniques, promotion of positive mood and behavior substitution techniques.
As the popular saying goes “old habits die hard”, if stress eating turns into a well-established habit it would be extremely difficult to deal with. Therefore, recognition of this common behavior of stress eating as troublesome is the first step towards curbing it.
I was stuck in a mental rut while trying to think of the most generic yet productive alternative for binge eating to combat emotional distress, so I did the one thing that is guaranteed to get me out of any soup: ask my mother! To this query of mine my mother replied “stepping out of the stressful situation and going to a place such as a park, a place of worship or a place where no junk food is readily available at least for a short duration is the easiest way to stop binge eating”. Anecdotal evidence to this suggests that change of environment is an effective coping strategy for stress and it also minimizes the need to depend on other ways of coping such as emotional eating.
Here’s what the American Psychological Association (APA) has to say about emotional eating:
- Think about what comfort food you crave and in what situations and note them down for future reference.
- It is extremely difficult to immediately stop eating your favorite food especially when you are under stress; however what can most certainly be done is to exercise mindfulness and cut down on portion size. Having one small serving of what you crave is much better than not having any of it and continue craving it.
- So you have made a plan to cut down on emotional eating, it is tough to always adhere to it in the initial phases. Don’t obsess about bad days wherein you couldn’t help eating more. A visit to your nearest mental health expert will enable you to formulate an action plan to manage the uncomfortable feelings of guilt that arise due to losing discipline at times.
- Take the help of your close confidantes who will motivate you to not stress eat and help prevent obesity.
- Emotional eating is a behavior. Therefore to curb it as well as to keep it at bay, an effective psychological intervention is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy when administered by a competent professional gets to the root cause of the emotional eating behavior by examining the past to know how it has developed, separating the present from the past experiences, and encourages good use of imagination to overcome it, since most stressors are often a product of imaginary/perceived threat. This helps to keep vigil and keep those nasty emotional hunger pangs away.Some self-help for the stress-eater:
“Shake that bootiya on the floor”, so goes the song from the movie “Finding Fanny”. Any form of exercise, especially dancing apart from aiding in shedding all the extra pounds that come with binge eating is found to increase the secretion of ENDORPHINS (endogenous morphine). Endorphins are chemicals that are naturally released by the body which have an opioid effect i.e. inhibit transmission of pain signals and in large amounts produce a feeling of euphoria/happiness thereby negating the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone. If one is happy and physically active then there are very less chances of using negative coping techniques in stressful situations.
Its the time to meditate– Vipassana is a form of mindfulness promoting meditation which teaches one to be aware at all times of one’s thoughts and enhances self-esteem. It works as a kind of long term investment in self-pride to get past binging to cope with stress and be the best version of oneself by identifying one’s own worth and potential and working upon it to lead a fulfilling life.
Fibre up people: Inculcating whole grains that are rich in fibre in your diet not only keeps you satiated for longer periods of time but also secrete serotonin, a chemical which regulates anxiety and happiness and promotes sleep. Serotonin helps secrete melatonin which in turn curbs cravings and shuts off appetite. So consuming whole grains is a win-win situation. It is also important to eat light at night at least two hours before bedtime.
Sleep like a baby: Stressed people often lose sleep over worry, and as a result their food is improperly digested and the undigested food may just get stored as fat. To promote restful sleep the best alternatives to pharmaceutical tranquilizers are herbal teas made from chamomile, peppermint, lemongrass and rose hips. These teas when consumed consistently for over 4-6 weeks, an hour before going to bed promote restful sleep.
Some product recommendations to enhance sleep and curb stress eating:
Tea for restful sleep: TE-A-ME Chamomile Infusion Tea Bags (Pack of 25)
So these were some tips to combat stress eating to keep obesity at bay. Have I missed out anything? How would you cope with a stressful situation? Please tell me down in the comments. Please like, comment and share the blog post.
Shoutout to Miss Ananya Joshi for requesting today’s topic.
Shoutout to Mr. Sandesh Lokhanday. Congratulations for having cleared the prestigious Indian Navy exams. Thank you for religiously following my blogs and offering prompt feedback.