Healthy Eating and Stress Management

Reviewed Jun 20, 2016


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This webinar explains emotional eating and stress management techniques.

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Healthy Eating and Stress Management

Rachel: Welcome to today’s webinar titled Healthy Eating and Stress Management. We are very fortunate to have Marjorie Nichols as our presenter today.

Ms. Nichols is a licensed clinical social worker and has provided behavioral healthcare for over 30 years. She graduated from Eastern Illinois University with an undergraduate major in Psychology as well as Health Education. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Illinois and has served as a field instructor for the University of Texas at Arlington for social work interns.

In her capacity as an Employee Assistance Program Counselor, Corporate Director of EAP Systems and Director of Provider Networks, she has written and facilitated seminars and workshops for numerous organizations.

So without further delay, Marjorie I’ll turn things over to you.

Marjorie Nichols: Thank you so much Rachel and welcome all of you. This is the subject that I am quite passionate about. Rachel mentioned that I have been working in the field of mental health for over 30 years now, about 35 years ago when I was completing my graduate work, my focus was on the relationship between stress and eating and stress and obesity. I’ve continued to review the research that has been done around the World, specifically Elissa Epel’s work out of the University of California at Davis and many others.

So usually how I start a seminar like this if I am facing people and an audience is I ask them this question so in this webinar I am going to do the same. How does stress affect your food choices? I want you to think about that. What do you eat when you are feeling stressed?

My hunch is it’s not Alaskan caught wild salmon. Does your appetite increase or decrease because of stress? Many of you out there, myself included, have an increase or bump in your appetite when you are under a lot of stress whereas others do not. As a matter of fact it becomes more difficult for them to eat. They lose the desire to eat.

So as you began to picture what kind of food you go to when you are under a lot of stress, it’s cookies, isn’t it, candy, potato chips, fast foods and then you super size those fast foods if you’re someone who increases your food consumption when you are under a lot of stress. You see it’s the starches, the sugars, the salts and the fats that we crave, right?

There is an increasing amount of evidence that stress is related to obesity. As stressed moms, many seek out emotional eating. They self medicate or to numb the negative effects of stress, myself included.

I remember about a month ago I was preparing to do a two-day long retreat and I am sure I had a lot of stress developing, some of that was in my head by the way, the self talks that I had, but also increasing amount of demands on me and I began crave Cheetos. I couldn't get that fast food snack process stuff out of my head.

Additionally, for some people they’re not only seeking food to numb, we call this self-numbing behavior, but they may also be struggling from depression, anxiety, the fatigue and boredom and often these symptoms trigger emotional eating as well.

Studies confirm that people who are under chronic stress tend to gain weight, many do, and choose comfort foods like I wanted to with those Cheetos or foods that are high in simple sugars, carbohydrate, high fat, and salt, some times referred to – that is the white.

Did you know that there is a neural basis for this? Emotional eaters; increases in negative mood relate to increases in food consumption. Consider the outcomes for people who suffer from the cycle of stressful eating and chronic stress; while for many, the outcome is being overweight or obese, other outcomes as well.

For those of you who are listening to me probably know what those are? Feeling discouraged by your eating, wanting to manage it but you seem to be out of control with it which may then begin to move into some signs of the low-grade depression or anxiety, certainly low self-esteem and impoverished lifestyle, some chances for relationship through other opportunity.

Well, keeping all of this in mind let me tell you what I am going to cover for you all today in this webinar, I want to talk about the factors that can affect our food choices.

Remember I told you there is neural basis for this, I am going to cover that. I am going to describe the correlation between stress and unhealthy eating. So it's often -- it's not that we overeat or binge but our food choices become quite different and harmful.

I am going to explain what emotional eating is working definition always help, and distinguish between a physical hunger and emotional hunger. And then I'll move into the strategies to develop healthier eating and stress management habits.

Now we all know, this is not a secret to any of us, that there is an obesity epidemic which is we all also know didn't happen overnight. A variety of factors play a role in obesity, making it a complex issue to address.

Body weight is the result of genes, metabolism, the older we get the more our metabolism slows down, our behavior, our environment, our cultural and socioeconomic status, even if your family members; parents, grandparents or siblings were overweight that does not predetermine that you're going to be overweight. It's your lifestyle; behaviors and environment and yes, socioeconomic status that plays a greater role in whether or not you maintain a healthy weight.

Because behavior and environment play a large role in causing people to be overweight or obese, these are the best areas to take action. Just as obesity and physical inactivity are important predictors of wellness or disease, stress is a significant factor.

An article in the American Journal of Health Promotion says that lifestyle factors, including stress management skills play a significant role in the ongoing battle against morbidity, mortality and healthcare utilization and cost.
Researchers have found that an individual's ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle, healthy eating, regular exercise and positive self management will enjoy substantially higher overall wellness and lower healthcare utilization and cost.

According to the American Psychological Association, how you handle stress also influences how your cardiovascular system responds. Studies have shown that if stress makes you angry or irritable you are more likely to have heart disease or heart attack. In fact, the way you respond to stress may be a greater risk factor for heart problems, than smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

To continue with that theory of the importance of managing stress I want to share the scientific evidence that proves there is a link between emotions; particularly stress and eating. In order to understand how this connection works a crash course in human physiology is helpful.

Now, you all have heard of the fight-or-flight syndrome, right? Well, this is what happens in our body when we experience a stress response and in turn how we get fat as a result of not managing our stress response.

First of all, when we experience a stress event, a stressful event, a cascade of stress hormones turns on if you will. Now historically, think about this, this makes sense, if we are running for our lives, our body needs to produce the stress hormones that feed us with glucose and proteins in our growth muscles so that we either fight or we run away from the real or imagined threat.

Now I mentioned imagined threat because what has happened to us over all of these thousands of years is so often we are not under a direct threat, but our brain tells us we are under a perceived threat, like the example I was sharing with you about the retreat I was planning to do and some of my soft talk got pretty hard or negative.

Oh! Do you think you’ll get it all done in time and it was ratcheting of the stress for me which caused cortisol to began to permeate my body causing hunger.

You see if we don't turn on/off our stress reaction, those hormones still pump through our bodies and is damaging to our brain and to our bodies. So with chronic stress, our body continues to dump cortisol along with many other stress hormones which causes us, particularly the cortisol, for us to become hungry.

When stress is chronic the hunger promoting hormone cortisol remains elevated, which in turn keeps the appetite up resulting in overeating for many people. For some it shuts off any appetite.

For those of us that are more prone to feeling hungry during stress, they are really feeling hungry because their emotions are perpetuating the chronic stress cycle.

Now here is the other problem emotional eaters face and this is why emotional eating paired with chronic stress is so difficult to repair. Chronic stress and in turn the release of cortisol shapes our food choices. We crave densely caloric foods; sugars, high fats and carbohydrates.

We crave these foods for many reasons; one to provide quick energy to respond to the stress but because we are not really under a physical stress, we eat the high calorie foods but do not expend any energy as we would if we were running away or fighting, as we used to so many thousands of years ago.

Two; we eat this food because it produces a natural sedative effect. When we are under chronic stress, we cope more like eating, it’s one of our self numbing behaviors. Consider this, people under a great deal of emotional stress will turn to foods to comfort them thus the phrase “comfort food.” These same people may be eating less but gaining weight.

Another serious issue we need to know is that it's not just putting on weight that is dangerous, it’s the distribution of that weight, fat brought on by stress is dangerous fat carried on the trunk or inside the abdomen, because it behaves differently. It carries different hormones and adversely affects your health.

Cortisol levels also appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat which gives some people that Apple shape. People with Apple shaped bodies have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes than those people with the pear body shape, where weight is more concentrated in the hips. These people are also at risk for metabolic syndrome, these are the Apple shaped people, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Now towards the working definition of emotional eating, eating has never been and never really will be simply about satisfying emotional hunger or physical hunger rather.

People not only eat to satisfy an appetite but also to deal with their emotions. Most of us can think of personal instances that demonstrated the strong link between food and emotions.

Now, to sum this up, emotional eating is eating in the absence of an appetite and what kind of food are we drawn to, as I mentioned before, well it's not that low carb Salmon, it’s those whites.

The problem with eating food high in sugar, simple carbohydrates, high-fat or high salt while under chronic stress is that it leads to increased health risk, habitual overeating and impairs one’s ability to cope effectively with changing moods.

Now in the American Psychological Association’s Draft in America study, major causes of stress listed include work, money, and the economy. Stress-related unhealthy habits were also reported with many Americans noting that they are overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress.

However overeating to relieve stress or any other negative emotion is likely to eliminate the problem is unlikely to eliminate the problem. These feelings are off and still present and may even become worse, because of the guilt and have self controlled feeling, commonly associated with overeating.

When a person habitually uses food to deal with emotions, he or she may lose the ability to regulate how they feel and maintain healthy ways of resolving problems and coping with life’s stresses.

Emotional eaters don't necessarily eat more food. They may just eat more unhealthy food such as calorie laden starchy sweets, salty and fatty foods. Consequently if stress and negative emotions are chronically unresolved, emotional eating can cause health problems related to abnormal weight gain.

Research indicates that some foods may also have addictive qualities for many people. Oh, think about it, again, when I ask that question, that I asked at the beginning of the webinar to a Live Group, usually what happens when I ask what foods are you drawn to when you're feeling stressed out?

The women in the group will say what, they'll say something, chocolate, and the men will usually say fast foods, may be they will also say beer. But what I want to say is that we do know that ingesting chocolates signals the body to release trace amounts of mood and satisfaction elevating OPS that high may reinforce a preference for foods that are most closely associated with specific feeling.

Well, the first step to beating emotional eating is recognizing the situations that cause you to snack, overeat or binge when you aren’t hungry. Keep a food journal; journaling what you are eating and what you are feeling at the time that you are eating it, is a great way of figuring out what situations lead you to soothe your feelings with food.

There is a great book called the ‘Power Of Habit’ in which the author himself found that he was gaining some weight and what he did is the same thing that I am suggesting here, is he kept a food and mood journal.

And what he realized was often times in the later afternoon he got bored. Oh yes he was busy with work but he got bored and so he would go down to the cafeteria and begin to court the pastry and desert sections of the cafeteria and he began to overeat.

So let me be more specific with you now on how to complete this food and mood journal. Each time you eat, write down where you are, who you were with, any external circumstances present, any internal thoughts and self talk message is present. How hungry you are and how you feel just before eating?

After you have eaten, write down any thoughts and feelings you have. Soon you should begin to see a pattern and can begin to break the habits of emotional eating and do some symptom substitution as he did in his book. He realized he was bored so then he began to seek out people to chat with for a couple of minutes rather than to eat.

Next, make a list of things to do when you get the urge to eat because of the stressful event or negative emotion. So for you, once you have made that discovery of what prompted you to crave chocolate chip cookies or a bag of potato chips begin to think of some alternatives, whether that’s taking a walk, calling a friend, doing some household chores that this happens to you at home, dancing to your favorite music, taking a warm bath or shower, a nap, do whatever you need to do that is self comforting that helps you begin to remember how to take care of yourself versus numbing the emotions that you're experiencing.

Finally, emotional eaters need to make peace with food. Emotional eaters may do greater harm than good by dieting as the constant restriction often makes them crave food even more.

The key is to learn to eat only when you have true physical hunger and engage in other activities when your hunger is triggered by emotion. You can prevent emotional eating by identifying and addressing issues that cause you to overeat.

Now towards that point we provided this slide for you all to help determine whether you are physically hungry or it’s an emotional hunger experience.

Physical hunger tends to come on gradually and can be postponed. It can be satisfied with any number of foods, stop when you are full. Now again in Brian Wansink’s book, ‘Mindless Eating,’ he talks about how most Americans eat until they are full or stopped, rather then when they are no longer hungry, there is a difference between the two and physical hunger doesn’t cause feelings of guilt.

Emotional hunger on the other hand comes on suddenly and feels urgent, causes very specific cravings as I have already attested to, tends to cause you to eat more than you normally would and triggers feeling of guilt, powerlessness, and shame.

So how do we do this thing called healthy eating? Well, sensible weight loss and healthy weight management generally requires consuming fewer calories; replacing junk food with whole foods, healthy ones, cooking, preparing your meal and expending more energy through physical activity.

Remember, anything that's good for your body is also good for your brain. Any advertisement for weight loss product or service that says you don't have to change your eating habits or increase your physical activity level to lose weight. In a word it’s baloney, pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist.

There is no secret to healthy eating. Be sure to eat a variety of foods including plenty of fresh vegetables; vegetables first then fruit, whole grains and healthy fats, you know what those are, right? The Omega-3 fatty acids that are found in olive oil, avocado, nuts to include walnuts, almonds, salmon, mackerel and so on.

Include low-fat dairy products and lean protein such as some of the fish that I mentioned, soya products and lagoons high in fibre. Drink lots of water and go easy on the salt and sugar, the alcohol exaggerated fat.

I want to remind you of, a website to help you make better food choices. Additionally ValueOptions has a list of articles on healthy eating that you can access through Achieve Solutions website. I am going to review some of these resources for you in just a couple of moments.

Plan the time location in portion and content of your meals each day and stick to your plan. In Brian Wansink’s book again I want to underscore how important it is to measure out your portion, put it on your plate and remove any other food from the table.

Many of us suffer from see food, by that I mean we see food and then we eat the food, rather than checking with ourselves, giving ourselves a 15-minute delay and really asking ourselves, am I still hungry? If food is in front of us often we will eat it. So slow down and enjoy your meal.

Now as previously mentioned food cravings are common and often occur when people are under stress. To deal with the sudden urge to eat particular food think before you bite, are you bored, tired, angry, stressed or lonely? If so, you won’t find the answer in food, establish a 15-minute waiting period before getting into a craving.

Many times these waiting periods can stop you from emotional eating, get out of the house, or walk around the office or walk up and down the isle, take a walk to the bathroom, if you simply cannot resist the urge to eat during those times initially you will get better at it. Either eat a small portion of the food that you crave or a healthy substitute so if you are craving ice-cream, switch that out to a frozen yoghurt if you will.

All right, I want to talk with you about water. Oftentimes we think we are hungry when we are really dehydrated. Secondly, I want to bring you all to research that was done – and initially 2010 was when the publication of this work was done and it continues to be validated, which is that researchers reported the results of folks who were on a calorie moderate intake of food and if they drank two cups of water before eating each meal as compared to the control group that didn’t drink water before it was on the same calorie control diet. The groups that drank two cups of water before eating each meal lost an average of five pounds more than a controlled group.

Let me talk with you now about mindful eating. This is a blend, if you will of eastern thought and western thought as well, and it comes from an idea that we need to stay focused on the moment, on the now.

Remember that stress is often the fear of what may come, or imagine a catastrophe predicated on your stressful feelings, the idea of mindfulness is to reassure you, to stay in the moment, and to remind yourself that it's okay.

So here are some of my suggestions, slow down, this comes from Judi Hollis’ work, she is a psychologist, she has worked in the field of eating disorders for many years. Her first suggestion towards mindfulness is to chew your food 20 to 30 times, enjoy the taste, savor the moment, think of how the food you are eating is providing health and longevity.

Focus on a single path of eating, stop reading, working at your keyboard or watching TV. Use chopsticks, that tends to slow us down, I am quite adept at using chopsticks. I can still feed eat if I am not mindful about slowing down.

When eating with others focus on the food and the conversation. Put your food on a smaller plate, again Brian Wansink discusses this in his book, take smaller quantities of food and allow that food to sit on that smaller plate, you will begin to feel full knowing that it looks to you as though you are eating a lot of food. Take time to make your meals, enjoy the artistry, the alchemy of cooking your meal.

Now there is a growing body of research that I have hinted at throughout this webinar that adopting positive stress management tool has clear benefits in terms of both physical and mental health. Like other lifestyle changes, getting started and sticking with a program of stress reduction and relaxation can be very daunting at first, but you will reap many benefits.

I could talk to you for a long time and done many webinars for you all and seminars on stress management techniques. I want to let you all know that ValueOptions has a webinar on Achieve Solutions website that you can listen to, that will provide you relaxation techniques. But there are various forms of relaxation techniques to include yoga, reading, listening to music, meditation hobbies, social support from your friends and your families and laughter.

So let me review just some key elements of positive stress management plan and dig more deeply, review the resources on ValueOptions’ Achieve Solutions; choose something that will help you, be more mindful if you will of your stress signatures, we all have stress signatures.

Those signatures are what you feel in your body whether it’s a tightness in your shoulder, the clenching of your jaw or your fist, behavioral manifestation, feeling more irritable or agitated or wanting to shut down or withdraw or cognitive impairments with high levels of stress, not being able to retrieve someone’s name or remember what your next task is.

These are stress signatures, be aware of what you offer, what you are experiencing, identify it and use corrective action as quickly as you can whether that’s breathing deeply, doing some neck rolls or shoulder rolls to help you release that tension.

Learn to say no and set limits. Seek out a community that supports you lean on friends and family, develop and utilize a full repertoire of positive and healthy stress reducing tool, and take care of your health before it takes control of you.




By Marjorie Nichols, LCSW ©2014-2017 Beacon Health Options Reviewed by Carolyn Meador, LCSW, Rachel Pauli, MA, CHES

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes, and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, health care, psychiatric, psychological or behavioral health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.



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