The clock strikes 4 pm. You’re exhausted from the day and the to-do list isn’t growing any shorter. Your mood isn’t ideal either. You feel irritable and losing patience with everything and everyone around you. Before you realize it, you may be stress eating. You’re opening the fridge, scouring the shelves for a quick snack. Or maybe you’re grabbing a latte and a brownie because you’re starving and dinner is too far away. It’s also possible you’re elbow-deep in the bag of chips and have no idea how long you’ve been standing at the kitchen counter eating them mindlessly while scrolling on your phone.
If any of these scenarios resonate with you, you’re not alone. Eating when feeling or experiencing stress is a very common form of “emotional eating.” Gennev Registered Dietitians agree, most of us are emotional eaters to some extent and stress is a very common trigger of over-eating. There is a myriad of reasons (or triggers) for emotional eating, and they may be tied to both good times and those that may be more challenging. For example, some of us overindulge during happy celebrations, and may use food as a reward. We may also find that we eat when we are bored, or perhaps we wish to avoid that lingering task. We also may find we when we are tired, sad, anxious, and of course when stressed!
Gennev RDN Jessica Gingrich says that “stress eating is a very normal, human thing to do and it is not related to being weak. This is a habitual behavior and neurological response designed to soothe your body and mind in response to overwhelming stress which includes everything from physical pain to mental stressors.” So, we eat when stressed because well... it’s how our body looks out for our survival! That’s why those potato chips are more appealing at 4 pm when the end of the day stress kicks in!
Let’s be honest, midlife can be challenging to say the least. Women in their 40’s and beyond may find themselves coping with changes in their careers, navigating new relationships with partners, aging parents, and extended family not to mention this ever-changing world. And then you throw in this thing called menopause! It’s very normal for women to use food as a coping mechanism for managing their individual life stressors.
“With stress eating, your body/brain/physiology has good intentions, believe it or not, to help you at this time. Eating may feel like it's the only coping mechanism accessible to you and that is OK. In recognizing this -and what you are doing- it may become easier to have a different outcome next time.” - Stasi Kasianchuk, RDN, Gennev Director of Health Coaching
Another common scenario is when women are feeling the combination of stress and fatigue from poor sleep. This is a perfect recipe for triggering stress eating, which may lead to a vicious repetitive cycle of over-eating. When you recognize that you’ve mindlessly consumed food for comfort, you may then feel shame and anxiety, which in turn, can result in you reaching for food yet again for comfort.
During acute, short-term or temporary stress, the hormone adrenaline suppresses the appetite so you’re likely LESS hungry. But while under chronic, long-term stress, cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone), increases. The elevated levels of cortisol may result in increased food cravings, particularly those high in sugar, fat, and salt. This also explains why sweets or salty, crunchy, carb-heavy foods are often more desirable. Hellllllo caramel and cheddar popcorn!
Practicing self-compassion and being curious about your stress eating, rather than critical, is a great place to start. Remember, stress eating is a normal stress response - you didn’t do anything “wrong”. Getting curious about your own experience with stress eating, whether in the past or the next time it happens, can help you identify the root cause or triggers, and therefore find more effective strategies to change your response to stress in the future.
These self-reflection questions can help you identify your individual triggers:
While eating is one way to respond to stress, exploring other options to relieve stress can provide a better approach to long term support:
When you work with Gennev, you will have access to experts in menopause lifestyle change management. We help women thrive in menopause through prescription and natural remedies, nutrition, fitness and mindfulness practices. Our nutrition experts are here to listen and come to every patient appointment without judgement or preconceived notions. They bring a compassionate view and aim to focus on the root cause of your stress, and will not shame the response anyone has with food. As Registered Dietitians, they will take a close look at your day-to-day eating patterns and partner with you to determine the best approach to creating more peace and less stress with your food and body.
The information on the Gennev site is never meant to replace the care of a qualified medical professional. Hormonal shifts throughout menopause can prompt a lot of changes in your body, and simply assuming something is “just menopause” can leave you vulnerable to other possible causes. Always consult with your physician or schedule an appointment with one of Gennev's telemedicine doctors before beginning any new treatment or therapy.