How to stop stress snacking

Published on 18 October 2021


Life gets stressful and although there are many different ways to cope with stress, sometimes a snack of the not-so-healthy variety feels like the only cure. We spoke with dietitian and personal trainer Byron Manning at Aquahub and Aquanation to get his tips on how to manage stress snacking.

“Food can be a coping mechanism for some people and stress snacking is definitely a real thing. It has that psychological element, but it also has a biological element to it as well,” says Manning.

The psychological element Manning is referring to is a person’s emotional response to food, while the biological process refers to the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol.

Stress snacking or stress eating describes when people emotionally eat to suppress and soothe negative feelings.

What happens to your body when you stress 

Before we dive in, let’s first understand what happens to your body when you’re in a stressed state.

When we feel stressed, our body’s nervous system pumps out the stress hormone cortisol, producing the high-alert ‘fight or flight' response – often prompting us to reach for a snack, any snack, to deal with the turmoil.

Manning says that essentially when we’re stressed our body automatically goes into survival mode, so reaching for something that’s not necessarily the healthiest choice is actually a survival mechanism.

“Those cravings for foods that are sweeter and have a higher fat content are actually really useful because they serve a good purpose, because if we’re more geared to go for those types of foods we’re more likely to survive,” he says.

Cortisol is best known for producing this ‘flight or fight’ response. Manning informs us that this reaction has evolved as a means of survival, enabling people to react to what could be perceived as a stressful or life-threatening situation.

In short, the natural fight or fight response is what has kept man alive for thousands of years!

So going back to cortisol.

“When it comes to cortisol it’s not just released when we’re stressed, and I think it gets a bit of bad press in that way,” he adds.

Cortisol does get a bad rap. It’s blamed for anxiety, high blood pressure – you name it. But Manning says having a better understanding of this hormone’s function will help us realise that balancing this hormone, not eliminating it, is key to healthy living.

The relationship between cortisol and melatonin rhythms

By now, many of us would be familiar with the term melatonin. But what is it and what does it do?

Melatonin is a hormone that our brain produces in response to darkness – often referred to as the ‘sleep hormone’. It helps with the timing of our circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and with sleep. Being exposed to light at night can block melatonin production.

Manning goes onto to explain that melatonin and cortisol are an opposite relationship; when melatonin is high, cortisol should be low and vice versa. When either of these gets out of balance, our ability to sleep is affected.

“The balance between cortisol and melatonin essentially forms our sleep cycle; cortisol wakes us up across the day and starts to inversely come back as the day goes on and melatonin rises and makes us sleepy,” he says.

“It’s (cortisol) responsible for being a bit of a wakeful hormone and from the moment we wake up and sunlight hits our eyes we start to produce more cortisol.”

So yes, cortisol can be a good thing – that is until too much is produced, particularly when faced with really stressful situations.

“That’s where you might see some high cortisol levels,” says Manning. He adds that in these instances another hormone comes to the party – ghrelin – which is the hunger hormone (hands up if you’re picturing a hungry gremlin.)

“Leptin is released when you’ve had a meal and you’re satisfied, however, the issue with stress is it can deregulate those things and you can get an increase in the amount of ghrelin released.”

And it’s with that imbalance where those cravings start knocking at your door.

So essentially, when we’re stressed your body automatically goes into survival mode, so it’s very common to source food to survive the situation.

How to curb your stress snacking 

If you’d prefer not to derail your healthy habits and goals, Manning has some great tips.

Firstly, get some sleep. “Once your sleep is broken or it’s not high quality that’s where you can run into biological problems in terms of the stress-response hormone cortisol being released the next day, so you’re fighting against that.”

Another aspect to consider are your tastebuds. The dietitian explains that those turn around every two weeks, so if you can train your tastebuds to reach for healthier options when you’re stressed you could be back on the healthy track.

While stress can often induce food cravings and influence bad eating habits, Manning says another way to avoid reaching for something unhealthy is to make it a little harder for yourself.

He suggests tuning into your snacking by being mindful of what you’re putting into your mouth, even when you’re feeling stressed.

“Try and create a bit of friction between you and a chocolate bar or whatever you’re trying not to have,” he says.

“Being mindful is important, take stock of each of your senses while you’re eating, what you can taste while you’re eating, what it feels like, that can help put a stop to that mindless eating.”

For Manning, this might help you realise what you’re eating in the first place.

Above all, Manning suggests understanding and addressing the cause is the best solution overall.

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