When Neelam (Shefali Shah) from Dil Dhadakne Do sees her husband Kamal (Anil Kapoor) flirt with another woman on their anniversary, she goes to her room and gobbles up a slice of cake. No, she stuffs her mouth with cake, trying hard to not break down.
This was one of the most memorable moments of this hard-hitting movie, and that’s because it’s all too real. Like many women, the stress of her husband’s many indiscretions pushed her to seek pleasure and relief from food. Although temporary, this sense of pleasure is exactly why we tend to eat when we’re stressed.
Since the begin of the pandemic in 2020, stress has been lingering in our mental living rooms like dust lingers on our side tables. Staying at home may have felt like a dream for the first 21 days, but as it became increasingly necessary for our safety, our lifestyles began to get impacted in more ways than just setting up a home office. And as it turns out, the stay-at-home lifestyle doesn’t bode well for many people. According to a study of 7,753 participants, conducted by Louisiana’s Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, about 27% people of the people surveyed said they had gained weight during the lockdown. These were people who were of a healthy weight before the pandemic began. Among the previously obese, 33% reported gaining weight. (But, there was a silver lining. Eating at home meant healthier food choices for some people, and about 17% reported losing weight thanks to home-cooked meals. These people also increased their level of physical activity by exercising more at home).
Another study reveals that when stress levels are high, we tend to consume more junk food. This is hardly surprising. Shefali Shah’s character didn’t pick up salad on her way to the room. Nor do we generally pick up boiled egg when we want to eat for comfort. We go for ice cream, burgers, or familiar favourites from childhood. But, what is it about food that makes us feel better?
Why do we eat more when we’re stressed?
Stress eating doesn’t have anything to do with hunger. Meaning, it’s not that we our body needs more fuel to combat stress. In fact, in the short-term, stress suppresses appetite as it revs up for fight-or-flight. In these passing stressful situations (like getting into a terrible fight with your best friend, or rushing to work), the body releases cortisol and adrenaline, which curb appetite. But, if the stress is persistent – like living in a pandemic – the cortisol level in the body doesn’t go down. When this happens, food becomes a way of coping. According to Tanja C Adam and Elissa S. Epel, researchers at University of California, eating high caloric food during stressful times kicks off reward pathways, making stress eating rather addictive.
Surely, that’s relatable. If you’re instinct is to go for that bag of chips, or bar of chocolate when you’re feeling out of sorts, you probably won’t be able to stop till someone smacks you on the head with a weighing machine. Repeatedly.
But, if stress eating is a coping mechanism for, well, stress, could we replace food with other de-stressing practices?
Dealing with stress without eating is 100% possible! Though, we must remember that any habit takes time to break and form. If you’ve been coping with stress by eating sugary, salty, fattening foods, it will take time for you to replace this with deep breathing, exercise and other healthier mechanisms. But, it is certainly doable.
First of all, identify the triggers.
When do you have cravings for comfort food? What is happening around you at this time? Is it at a particular time of the day? Or after meeting with certain people? Spend a few days writing down patterns. This will help you identify what triggers the need to stress eat.
Once you have some understanding of what your triggers are, try to avoid them. If that’s not possible (for example, if the stressor for you is staying at home, it’s not something you can avoid), slowly start replacing food with something else. Instead of reaching for that tub of ice cream, you could:
- Eat an apple
- Walk 500 steps
- Skip rope
- Call a friend
- Drink some water. Try infused water if plain water sounds boring.
- Distract yourself with a funny video or a book
According to researchers at Harvard, build long-term habits of practicing meditation and regular exercise can offer a long-term solution for problematic eating patterns. Meditation and exercise help us become more mindful of our body and mind, and this in turn, helps us make more conscious choices about what we consume.
But, why should one go through all this trouble? Why is stress-eating bad?
If you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, stress eating will pull you off-track. But even if you’re not on a weight loss journey, eating is not the best way to cope with stress. It takes a toll on the body, especially given that when we eat because of stress, we tend to make unhealthy food choices. Stress eating, coupled with other things stress does to your body (like poor sleep), can put you at risk of weight gain. And as we all know, being overweight is associated with a host of health issues. So, best to avoid that cupcake when you’re feeling tense.
I write. I read. I do yoga. I hula hoop. I love cats and dogs in equal measure. I'd say the same for wine. My zen motto: "Eat kale for the body, cake for the soul." Find me on IG: @prachigangwani87