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Binging on the brink

Health risks of stress eating

What happens when food becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism?

03 Apr 2023
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Health risks of stress eating

In 2020, The Straits Times reported an increase in overeating and binge eating cases during the Circuit Breaker period. Those affected were overeating as a way to cope with the stress arising from the pandemic, ranging from health anxiety to job insecurity. Later in 2021, the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) confirmed a 15 per cent increase in eating disorder cases since the start of the pandemic.

Why do people stress eat?

When faced with a stressful situation, our bodies produce adrenaline, which shuts down digestion and reduces our appetite. However, if the stress persists, our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol, which increases appetite and may lead to overeating behaviours. The combined effect of reduced digestion and overeating may lead to physical discomfort when the body is unable to digest the food effectively.

Stress also increases the craving for “junk” foods, such as high-fat, sugary foods, as these foods can reduce stress-related emotions. These foods release serotonin and dopamine in the brain, temporarily improving your mood and alleviating anxiety—hence why they are sometimes called “comfort foods”. Over time, this creates a habitual craving when we are faced with stressful situations and may develop into a coping mechanism. This is also why stress eating is also known as emotional eating, as food becomes a response to a particular emotional experience.

What are the health risks associated with stress eating?

1. Weight gain and related health problems

Not only can stress eating lead us to consume excess calories, but stress itself also slows down our body’s metabolism and digestive processes, leading to a faster rate of weight gain. Uncontrolled weight gain may result in an increased risk of obesity and its various comorbidities, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Patients with pre-existing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, the increased intake in high-fat and sugary food is of even greater concern as it can increase the risk of complications like kidney failure and blindness.

2. Nutritional deficiencies

The highly processed and high-calorie foods that we crave when stress eating tend to be lower in nutrients, like chips, sweets, chocolate, and fried foods. When we are stress eating, we consume larger quantities of such foods, and this may reduce our appetite for our usual healthier meals. Over time, we may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies if we’re not adequately consuming important nutrients.

Nutritional deficiencies can lead to a weakened immune system and increase our susceptibility to illnesses and diseases. Additionally, stress is also an anti-nutrient, and will reduce the body’s ability to absorb and store nutrients.

3. Toll on mental health

Episodes of binge eating during a stressful period may trigger emotions of guilt and shame, and may cause the opposite extreme behaviour of purging or restrictive eating. If the underlying causes of stress and coping patterns are not addressed, it could lead to a vicious cycle of binge eating and purging. Sudden and excessive weight gain can also result in low self-esteem.

It is important to understand that stress eating is not a healthy coping mechanism and can result in eating disorders, with serious physical and mental repercussions.

How to manage stress and avoid stress eating?

1. Find healthier distractions

Rather than using food to relieve your stress and anxiety, try to find other methods of distracting yourself, such as talking to a friend, watching an episode of your favourite show, or taking a walk outside.

It may also help to remove your common stress-eating foods from your home, so that you won’t have access to them when you feel like mindlessly eating.

2. Exercise

Exercise is a natural stress reliever as our body releases endorphins when we exercise. Endorphins elevate our mood and produce feelings of well-being, which helps to reduce stress and anxiety.

If you find solo exercise like running or cycling too boring, try group sports like badminton or tennis. Finding a workout or active movement that you enjoy and look forward to is the key to a sustainable exercise routine.

3. Talk to someone

A burden shared is a burden halved. Oftentimes, when stress is managed alone, it can magnify and make us feel overwhelmed. But we may find that talking to friends and family may make our problems seem a lot less daunting as we feel less alone in our struggles.

However, if you’re struggling to manage your stress and stress eating habits on your own, it may be invaluable to seek professional help from a therapist or counsellor. They would be better equipped to provide the mental health support that you may need.

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