Nearly everyone’s eating habits are affected by stress, whether it’s munching your way through the drive home, turning to the fridge after a family fight, or being too anxious to eat before a presentation.
Although most scientific research focuses on the 3 percent of people with truly disordered eating, the vast majority of us have at least some periodic problems with either overeating or being unable to stomach food because of nerves.
Many turn to food for comfort. Eating can have an “anesthesia effect,” dulling us to the pain of whatever we’re going through, said Emily Fox-Kales, a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders.
The physical act of chewing can also help discharge the anger or anxiety that builds up in the jaw or neck. “People tell me they’re talking to their mother-in-law, and they’re really furious, and they grab a bag of peanuts and just chomp away,” said Fox-Kales, who is also in the department of psychology at Northeastern University.
The pleasure of eating fat, salt, and sugar can — in the short term — eases the negative sensations of stress, she said.
But a little later, guilt over inhaling that quart of ice cream is likely to add even more stress. Plus, there are healthier ways to calm down.
Learning to tune into yourself is an important step. “Really stop and take a slow deep breath and ask, ‘Am I really hungry or do I just want to eat to ease my stress?’ ’’ suggests Kathy McManus, director of nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
And finding distractions can help stop stress-related eating, she said. Activities, like reading, taking a walk, listening to music, or relaxing in a tub can provide a positive diversion .
Adding hunger to stress can lead to even more overeating, said
Esther Dechant, medical director of Klarman Eating Disorders Center at McLean Hospital. People who are genuinely hungry should make a point of tasting, savoring, and paying full attention to their food, she said.
“Go out of your way to make meal times a low-key nonstress event,” she said. People should “set aside time to eat, sit down, make a plate, put their problems aside.”
For those who have trouble eating when stressed, McManus suggests making sure to eat breakfast and at least two other times during the day.
This daily structure can give people back a sense of control — which is what most of us are missing when we get stressed out.