Here are some of ways that stress can affect eating decisions. Ask yourself: when I’m feeling over-stretched or unhappy, do I do any of these things?
- Choosing the wrong foods: When we are under stress, we tend to crave foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. This may be partly because stress boosts a hormone called cortisol, which increases our desire for such foods. Think about it: how often have you turned to your good friends Cadbury and Walls after a long, stressful day?
- Missing meals: When you’re in the fast lane, skipping meals is the wrong choice. Charging out of the house without a decent breakfast can lead to low blood sugar (which will make you feel more stressed), and your missed lunch will turn into late afternoon brain starvation.
- Not taking meal breaks: You might think ‘deskfast’ or ‘lunch al desco’ saves time. But consider this: a 30-minute break will add more than a half hour’s value and effectiveness to the next four hours’ toil. And you will digest what you’ve eaten better. You know this makes sense.
- Semi-conscious snacking: On the other hand, stress can make you comfort-eat, eat when you’re not hungry, or eat junk food and make unhealthy food choices. When was the last time you filled your stomach while your brain was otherwise engaged? When we are stressed – and our minds are preoccupied – it’s all too easy to do.
- Having too much coffee: When people feel they are running on empty, they often fall back on coffee-drinking to get jump-started in the morning. The need for quick bursts of adrenaline-like energy can easily become a mini-addiction and an all-day coffee habit.
- Dehydration: It’s easy to forget water when you’re under pressure. In fact, many people hardly touch the stuff, and get their water only from fizzy drinks, tea or coffee, all of which tend to dehydrate you even more. Ideally we should drink more water a day. Put a litre bottle of water on your desk and try to empty it by the end of the day.
- Fast food: Many people in the UK don’t sit with friends or family to eat unless it’s in front of the TV. It may seem quick, easy and cheap to get a takeaway burger, or an over-rich, ready-made mega-snack from the supermarket, rather than go home and cook. But your body will benefit a lot more from slow food, rather than fast food. You will feel better after a low-sugar, high-fibre, home-cooked meal, made with fresh, healthy ingredients. Food like this will supply long-lasting, slow-burn energy.
- Fad diets: When the vicious circle of stress and poor nutrition triggers weight-gain it’s tempting to go on a crash diet. But diets that lack a proper balance of fruits and vegetables, the right fats, proteins and healthy carbs can undermine your long-term health. Even if you desperately want to lose weight quickly, the chances are that you will soon pile on the pounds again, unless you address the underlying causes of stress. You need to find out what triggers your lifestyle patterns and aim to make healthy eating a long-term goal.
- 5, 7 or ten a day? The recommended number of portions of veg and fruit keeps growing. As a species we need the kind of diet we evolved with on the open plains: real food, not much of it and mostly plants. Or perhaps we evolved on beaches! Because our body chemistry though not cut out for large amounts of animal protein and fat (which promote inflammation) does thrive on the sorts of fatty acids that come from eating lots of (oily) fish.