Why do I want to eat unhealthy foods when I'm stressed out?

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
When stress hits, cortisol hormone tells our brains that we are hungry, so we then seek out food. "Stress," by the way, doesn't have to be the kind we experience while traversing a highway to make our exit. Eating a box of chocolates or a pint of premium ice cream when you're sad, frustrated, angry, and moody -- all of which the body can interpret as being stressed -- has its reasoning. Fatigue born out of sleep deprivation and a caffeine addiction also causes the body to cry out for energy. These cries come first for carbohydrates, the body's preferred source of energy, thanks to cortisol's message to our brain that demands sugary, fatty foods -- all the wrong foods for stopping the cycle. Rich, sugary foods don't do much for us but contribute to insulin swings, poor blood-sugar balance, as well as extra pounds, potbellies, worse moods ... and do we need to mention low energy?

What's more, the usual culprits -- chips, cookies, my kid's ice cream -- register in our brain's reward center in ways that make us crave them even more. When we give in, what we ingest dictates how the body will respond from there. We usually don't choose well, and overconsume when we are seeking carbs for energy. If we choose a sugary carb with fat, the combo can actually override our brain's satiety mechanism and we will keep eating (think ice cream, chips and guacamole, or cupcakes with icing).
Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged

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Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged

       From celebrated dietitian Ashley Koff and fitness trainer to the stars Kathy Kaehler comes Mom Energy, an exciting new way for moms to tap into their own natural and renewable sources of...
Brooke Randolph
Marriage & Family Therapy
In times of stress, many people reach to favorite foods for comfort. I would even venture to say that everyone has done it at some point. Why is this such a common coping technique?

One reason that we eat when stressed is for the physical energy. Foods with simple carbohydrates (like sweets) can provide a quick burst of energy. Physical and/or mental energy is necessary to help us confront the stressor that is causing distress. Yes, simple carbohydrates may provide a quick burst of energy, but what isn't used is stored.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates can also have a calming effect. When grieving, a bowl of spaghetti helped me recover relaxation and calm. Another reason we eat when stressed is to nurture ourselves. Eating not only provides energy, but is a basic component of physical care.

Physical care is how we initially form attachments in infancy. By providing such care for ourselves, we are increasing our feeling of safety. Choosing certain comfort foods also increases feelings of safety by reminding us of family love and care.

Preparing and eating food can also simply be a distraction from whatever is causing you stress, allowing you a chance to rest (and recover) mentally. One problem with emotional eating is when we don't allow it to be a distraction. If you continue to think about your stressor, you are not receiving the emotional benefits of eating.

Eating mindlessly often leads to overeating, because we are not paying attention to how much we are eating, but also because we are not receiving those emotional benefits that we craved initially.

If you know why you are craving or instinctually reaching for certain foods, you may be able to make wiser, conscious choices. Emotionality is a variable that can often interfere with our goals and best choices. Although eating can be comforting to some, it may be too big of a temptation for others. Know yourself, honor your needs in whatever way best fits your goals, and pay attention to what you are doing.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.