During the holidays and winter months, we can experience higher levels of stress. This time of year often stirs up painful memories and family tensions, deepens financial troubles, and finds us gaining unwanted pounds. We also tend to get sick more often. So, what do we do? We engage in stress eating. The roots of emotional eating teach us to eat when we feel bad. So we learn to associate food with relieving our sadness, disappointment, and other negative feelings.
But, stress eating can shorten your life span. That’s right! By repressing your feelings and adding extra pounds, you may be doing more long-term harm than the short-term good feelings are worth. Let’s dig in to uncover what health problems are associated with stress eating. That way, we can better understand the root of many of our health issues and see why we need to address the roots of stress eating instead of suppressing or repressing our emotions.
What Stress Eating Does to You
When you turn to food for comfort, it can affect you in different ways. Some of the effects you might notice right away, while others could take a little longer for you to become aware of.
Stress Eating and Your Emotions
Turning to food for comfort affects your emotions. It’s kind of a catch-22 situation. You want to turn to the food because you’re feeling down. So you head to the pantry and grab a bag of chips or pick up a pack of cookies.
The emotions that you were feeling before you started eating begin to lighten as you eat. The act of eating works to suppress the feelings, since it activates the brain’s reward center.
Soon, you feel a lot better. You might feel happy and the emotions that you had before you started eating seem to have disappeared altogether. Sometimes, we aren’t aware that we’re stress eating.
We only know we feel a strong pull to eat whenever we feel something we don’t like or don’t want to deal with. We eat, we feel better, so we turn to food again. But, we don’t realize that we’re setting ourselves up for a dangerous habit.
A vicious cycle
Those chips and cookies you’re eating do a great job of masking the emotions while you’re in the act of consuming them. But this is only a temporary measure. The minute the food is gone, the feelings all come rushing back.
These emotions always return, but they don’t come alone. You’ll still feel what you felt before you started eating but now, you have added emotions. The overeating of calories can cause you to feel guilty.
You’re feeling guilty because when you’re stress eating, you feel like you’ve done something wrong. It causes you to associate feeling better at first, but then immediately afterward, the guilt rushes in.
So, you begin to berate yourself. You question how you could have eaten what you just did –-maybe an entire carton of ice cream or multiple servings of pasta. You inwardly scold yourself for not having more willpower.
And then, you begin overanalyzing every fault you can find with your body. After that, you feel even more ashamed. While it might seem that going over the emotional eating in your mind and calling yourself out will help you do better or try harder, it doesn’t.
Instead, it makes you feel worse. When you turn to food, it’s because you’re not listening to your true emotions. You’re not tuning in to what’s really going on with yourself.
If you continue to engage in stress eating and afterwards, continue to battle guilt, you become disgusted with yourself. Then, this can turn into self-loathing. After that, you’ll begin beating yourself up and saying to yourself that you’re fat or stupid or using all sorts of negative words.
Stress eating can affect you physically because the increased caloric intake takes a toll on your body. This type of emotional eating represses emotion and that in itself takes a toll on your body. After all, the grief, resentment, anger, and disappointment have to go somewhere. They don’t just disappear. In addition, very often, you’re not even completely aware of how much you’re eating. So there can be a tendency to overeat.
This can be caused by a signal your body gets when you’re feeling emotional. Your brain reminds you that when you eat, you feel better. It releases cortisol and the next thing you know, all you can think about is junk food.
But there’s a price to pay for stress eating. When you do this, you can end up gaining weight and developing serious health issues. Not only do you feel stressed before you eat (and turn to food for relief), but then, you feel stressed afterwards, too.
Another vicious cycle
You feel stressed that you ate again or that you overate in one sitting. Then, this stress slows down your metabolism. This slower metabolism holds onto weight, so you tend to gain even more easily than you normally would.
So, you gain weight, storing it as fat in your abdominal area, hips, and thighs. Storing weight in these areas makes it even harder to lose and increases your risk of other health problems.
In addition, when you gain weight, you can end up developing diabetes. Emotional eating is a big cause of elevated glucose levels because of the types of food people choose when trying to mask their emotions.
These foods are often high in carbs, sugar, fats and other ingredients that are known to cause problems. The emotional, stress eating is causing you to consume more calories than your body can handle. And, it just becomes this vicious cycle. You eat because you feel bad and this makes you feel worse, so you eat some more.
Additional health problems
Because of where you tend to store the extra weight, you can develop back problems. This is because the extra weight pulls on your back, changing your center of gravity. You walk and move differently because of the weight gain and your muscles have to work with a heavier strain.
Joint pain is also common with stress eating. You’ll gain weight and that weight impacts your knees, ankles, hips and more. This is due to an increase of pressure on the joints. For every pound that you gain, you add additional pressure to your joints. On top of all that, it can cause sleep apnea as well.
That’s because they simply weren’t made to handle excess weight, especially as time goes on. This is why people who are overweight can develop trouble walking. The emotional, stress eating can also cause health problems like fatigue.
Think of it. With extra weight, every part of your body has to work harder.
This is one area where we don’t really think about stress eating as a problem. In addition to the emotional cycle and destructive rollercoaster on which stress eating sends you, it also affects your mental health. But, food addiction is a real thing and spiritually, you are using food as an idol. You are using it to avoid dealing with conflict, emotional wounds, and more. In other words, you may be turning to food instead of turning to Jesus. And you may be turning to food to forget instead of forgive.
Maybe you never considered that you could have an addiction. Especially not when it comes to food. After all, you have to have food to live. It’s not like you can do without it. This kind of thinking is why so many people struggle to realize that emotional or stress eating can be an addiction.
What’s happening in your brain
However, people who have this kind of addiction go through the same stages that someone with a drug or alcohol addiction do. When you turn to food because you want to feed your emotions, you’ll eat and you will feel better, just like a drug or alcohol addict.
But that’s because of what’s going on inside your brain. The minute that you start eating, your brain gets to work releasing feel good chemicals. As you eat, you get a boost of endorphins.
These endorphins create the same effect in your brain that taking an opiate would. After all, endorphins are natural opiates, but the outcome is still the same. You feel so good and so relieved that you look forward to getting it again. Emotional eating might not seem like it, but just like drugs, there can be a dark side. It can lead to addictive mental dependence. You might find yourself thinking about food more often than you should.
Whenever something happens that upsets you, you immediately get hit with a craving. You might feel upset and even a little edgy because you just have to get to some food. This is how you know you’ve become addicted to the natural opiate your brain delivers.
And so, you start to crave it just like you would drugs or alcohol. Just like an addict, when you can’t have the food you want or don’t get to turn to it, your emotions can get worse. You might even have trouble handling your anger until you get the food you crave.
Emotional eating causes a dependence on getting that endorphin high because it’s an addictive cycle.
You’ll find that your automatic go-to response is always food first. You’ll feel this because you crave endorphins over cortisol. This is why emotional eating is often not something that you can simply “get over” or wish away.
Just like any other addiction, it has to be dealt with the right way so that you can break the control it has over your life.
Stress Eating Enslaves You to Food
Unfortunately, something that we need and that is meant to be good can be turned into something bad. Eating is meant to be pleasurable. If it wasn’t, then God would’ve made everything taste bland. And eating with others is an important social ritual. But, when we are living to eat instead of eating to live, we need to correct the root issues before the stress eating destroys us emotionally, physically, and mentally. And the root of the problem starts with our spiritual health and relationships. Understanding your triggers is the first step toward breaking the chains of stress eating.