What makes you most anxious? Maybe just the word anxious gives you butterflies in your stomach, a reminder of something that is causing you stress and anxiety. In so many cases, the periods in life where we feel the most stress, out of control of our lives, we turn to food - either eating in excess or restricting. But why? What is the deal with our gut reacting so strongly to our emotions?
A Harvard Health article explains: “Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract.” The Gut - Brain connection is real. It makes sense then that when our emotions are overstimulated that so is our gut, making us crave food to sooth our woes or restrict food to sooth our stomach aches.
But can it be as simple as - we all take comfort in different things? When the reaction to stress or anxiety is to reach for food a few things are happening. The act of eating food stimulates a pleasure response to the body, something we seek more and more of, especially when feeling depleted in other ways. The brain almost shuts off consciousness - something that happens in our worlds far too often these days - and we begin eating mindlessly. When there is zero connection between what we are eating and how our body is feeling response (lack of consciousness) we will never feel ‘full’ never feel like stopping because that dopamine in our brain is saying ‘this feels good and I am so stressed, I need the things that feel good.’ The problem is, afterwards, we do not feel good at all.
Adding to the complexity of stress eating is that typically we are not making healthy choices when eating to ‘feel good’ we are grabbing the potato chips, cookies, processed foods - ironically, these high sugar, high saturated fat foods are actually addicting. They are the perfect foods to hook us into the cycle of poor choices and feeding emotions. Sadly, these are the very foods that actually make us feel worse…Anxiety website reports: “One study reported that people who ate more processed foods were at greater risk of anxiety and depression. Likewise, multiple studies with rats have found that prolonged diets high in fat and sugar are associated with increased anxiety-like behaviors across a number of tasks.” We are doing ourselves a double injustice
So what do we do about it? Before delving into her culinary career, our founder got her masters degree in Art Psychotherapy and worked with women with eating disorders. One of the most impactful cognitive behavioral techniques she used was guiding patients to utilize mindfulness. In Buddhism they talk about being present in our own bodies and how few minutes in the day we are actually aware of our own breathing, walking, physicalness. Bringing attention to our breath, our intake during eating, these things ground us and help us listen to our own bodies and understand why and how we are taking food in, if it is healthy and necessary or abusive.
Some quick tricks to being present when feeling the urge to eat:
- Check in with yourself, as three simple questions: Am I upset/anxious/worried? Am I thirsty? Am I tired?
- If you have answered yes to anxiety, turn to journaling, calling a friend/confidant, go for a walk, exercise, meditate, read a book, take a bath or any other activity that redirects energy toward something constructive to your body and state of mind. If thirsty, drink water and relax for 10 minutes.
- Visualize the food you have already consumed, bring attention to what your body actually needs, if you have not eaten enough, prepare a healthful meal and enjoy.
- Write down what you have eaten that day - give yourself accountability to what you truly need for the rest of the day.
- Go out and shop for healthy food to fill your fridge and pantry: fresh fruits and vegetables, clean proteins and whole grains - these things will keep you satiated and stave off anxiety/emotional eating going forward.