The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Don’t Let Stress Control Your Eating Habits

Posted in
Eat better

Thursday, Apr 16, 2015

It’s National Stress Awareness Day! And, in honor of this day, let’s review an earlier post that examines various stressors that may affect your eating habits.

In the past week, have you eaten for reasons other than physical hunger? If you're like most people, you'd answer, "YES!". True physical hunger is defined as discomfort, pain, or weakness caused by your body's need to eat food for energy or fuel. On the other hand, psychological hunger is the desire to eat for nonphysical reasons and is often triggered by the environment around you (external triggers) or your moods and emotions (internal triggers).

Which of these triggers lead you to eat when you're not truly hungry?

External triggers: Food-focused festivities like parties, get-togethers, and sporting events, the weather, busy schedules, and fatigue

Internal triggers: Loneliness, depression, feeling overwhelmed, and irritability

While it is important to recognize and find other ways to deal with both external and internal triggers, researchers are particularly concerned about the affect of internal triggers on people trying to manage their weight.

Researchers at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University/Miriam Hospital analyzed responses to an eating inventory questionnaire that assessed eating due to a variety of internal and external cues/situations. In a group of 286 overweight men and women who were participating in a behavioral weight loss program they found that the more a person ate for internal reasons, the less weight they lost over time. Likewise, in a group of over 3,300 adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one year, the researchers found that those who reported emotional eating were more likely to regain weight over time. These results suggest that eating in response to internal cues is associated with poorer long-term weight loss outcomes.

So, if you are an emotional eater, it is important to identify which thoughts and feelings (internal triggers) cause you to eat when you are not physically hungry. Then, you can develop a plan to handle these triggers without relying on food. Often, stress management techniques like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (where you tighten and relax various parts of your body) can help you cope when you're in a stressful circumstance. Don't forget that physical activity, too, is an excellent alternative to eating when stressed. And, if done regularly can actually help your body better deal with stressful situations.

Niemeier, H.M., Phelan S., Fava, J.L., Wing, R. (2007). Internal disinhibition predicts weight loss regain following weight loss and weight loss maintenance. Obesity, 15(10), 2485-2494.