Stress is everywhere, and chronic stress is known to be harmful not only to our emotional health, but also to our physical health. It can affect the immune system (making us sick more often), the heart (causing high blood pressure and other heart problems) and muscles (causing problems with neck, shoulder and low-back pain), to name just a few concerns.
It can also be linked to overeating, and so contribute to obesity.
Stress eating is a common problem in our fast-paced world, although many people believe they are alone when it comes to this issue. In reality, most people have a tendency to overeat when moderately stressed. That can make controlling food portions particularly difficult.
There may be physiological reasons why we tend to eat more and eat certain types of foods when we are under chronic stress. For example, research suggests that certain brain functions linked to chronic stress compel us to eat. Stress can also compel us to eat faster, potentially increasing the amount we eat even more.
The foods we're more likely to reach for at times of stress are the sugary and starchy favorites we might call "comfort foods.'' These have properties that affect the brain in soothing ways, making us feel better and reinforcing eating when we are under stress. So you see — you're not alone. It's just how our bodies are wired to deal with chronic stress.
It's essential to identify whether stress is driving your overeating. If you try to control portions with tricks like using smaller plates, but don't address the real reason for overeating, such tricks won't help.
Is stress eating you? Take the quiz
• Do you get irritated over minor things?
• Do you often feel anxious, jittery and "hyper"?
• Do people get on your nerves often?
• Is it difficult to control your temper?
• Is it hard to focus on and remember things?
• Are you constantly worrying and thinking about the next thing you have to do?
If you see yourself in these signs of stress and are having problems with portion control, there may be a link. We can't eliminate stress from our lives, but we can learn to manage it.
TIPS TO PUT INTO ACTION
Here are some tips for reducing stress and portions:
• Take deep breaths throughout the day, especially before eating.
• Slow down eating by savoring your food. Focus on the sight, smell and taste of your meal before swallowing it.
• Try to be mindful if you find yourself feeling hyper, and purposefully slow down your movements and actions. You'll find that you'll still get plenty done.
• Look at the big picture. Remind yourself of what's really important in your life. Perhaps what you're worrying about really isn't as important as you think.
• Remind yourself of what chronic stress can do to your health.
• Manage hunger by eating sensible meals on a regular schedule. Being hungry just adds to any other stress you're carrying around and causes more overeating.
• Watch the servings. A brain under stress thinks it needs more food than the body really demands. So, if stressed, serve less than your brain is telling you. Wait 20 minutes after having eaten slowly. If you're still hungry, have a little more, and savor that, too.
• Exercise has repeatedly been shown not only to be a great fat-burner but also a highly effective stress buster and appetite reducer. Make the time to use this powerful health tool.
• Do something relaxing every day. Sit outside, meditate, practice yoga, play — do anything that makes you feel at peace, comfortable and focused on the present moment.
ONE LAST THING
Take a deep breath, address the stress in your life and start on the road to a healthier lifestyle and natural portion control.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. Reach her at (813) 240-9557 or firstname.lastname@example.org.