Why We Overeat Part 2: Stress

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Hey folks if you haven’t already read part 1 of this series on overeating: Feast and Famine go ahead and do so to get some context for this post.

In the first part of this series we discussed how hunger works, and the fact that are hardwired for cycles of feast and famine.

Our ability to feast during certain times helped us to survive when dealing with famine. This same reward system that was crucial for overeating now works against us because our evolutionary habits don’t match with our current environment and modern foods.

When it comes to something as complicated as overeating, there are a lot of factors to consider and understand.

Once people understand the triggers for overeating they can work  towards a habit based reduction in the triggers and habits that lead to overeating.

In this blog post I am going to be discussing one of the biggest dark horses in overeating; stress. We have all heard mentions of stress or emotional eating,but Why does stress  cause people to overeat and make less healthy food choices ? Is it more of a mental or physical trigger ?

keep reading to learn more.

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What Is Stress ?

Before we dive into the effects of stress lets define what it is,and dispel the myth that all stress is bad. Stress can be defined as a mental, physical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.

Stresses can be external such as ( social situations, environmental or psychological) or internal such as illness or a  medical procedure.

As an example building muscle from going to the gym and lifting heavy weights  is a beneficial stress response. Mini challenges to the immune system that allow it to grow stronger and fight off larger infections is a beneficial stress as well.

Certain forms of stress  that are short in duration are good for the body, but the poison is in the dose. Most folks are overdosing on stress daily.

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How Stress Works In Your Body

We are adapted to handle infrequent short bouts of intense stress followed by time to rest and recover. Unfortunately our modern lifestyle is one of chronic low grade stressors that happen all day long with no time to recover.

Life requires the body to constantly be checking and establishing equilibrium.This equilibrium is known as homeostasis, for the purpose of this blog we are going to apply this to the  processes of appetite regulation, energy storage and use  as it relates to overeating.

Our stress response is a flow of adaptive changes that start in the central nervous system. This stress response is designed to be intense and  short in duration which causes mental, behavioral and physical changes.

Lets say we encounter a mountain lion on while on a hike. In response to the threat of a  mountain lion the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to make the heart beat faster, increase the pulse  and move blood to the extremities to prepare for fighting or running away.

The secretion of cortisol also triggers the uptake of blood sugar into the cells to make sure all your energy can go towards fighting or running.

This stress causes the body to use all available blood sugar stored in the muscles or in the blood stream. The mountain lion sees you and runs away but you can still feel the effects of the stress hormones.

Adrenaline runs it course and is cycled out of the system in a short amount of time.Cortisol sticks around for much longer and signals the body to refuel after the stressful event.

We need to eat  sugar and  pack on  fat to make sure we’re prepared for any future fight or flight events.  

In everyday life a more likely stress is money for bills, traffic or an overbearing boss at work. The response is the same as the mountain lion though.

Adrenaline and cortisol is released to cope with the stress response. Your body doesn’t realize you are not fighting or running away.

The cortisol tells your brain to replenish sugar and store fat  in anticipation of the next stressful situation.  

Our stressed out lifestyle is just like coming across the mountain lion all day long.  We are not adapted to handle this volume of stress, but our body does it’s best  to adapt.

Assume our body has a stress bank, and each time you get stressed you make a withdrawal from the bank. We are all operating in extreme stress debt.

Just the same as any other bank sooner or later you have to pay back what you owe. The  currency we pay back our debt with unfortunately is our health.

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Stress and Willpower

As we evolved and our brains grew we developed a larger prefrontal cortex. This prefrontal cortex allows us to set goals and regulate our actions.

This is the most evolved part of our brain that helps us to manage, and delay gratification. The prefrontal cortex helps you resist those sugar cookies because you want to look good for a trip to Mexico.

When the stress response is triggered it inhibits the function of our prefrontal cortex. Your ability to delay gratification and think of long term disappears.

In a fight or flight situation being impulsive is an advantage because your only focus is acting quickly and managing immediate threats.

In this state our body is concerned with improving  mood as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences.

Someone who has something to live for is going to run much faster than a depressed person. The cravings are also  amplified to make sure you consume the foods that hit the reward center in the brain and elevate mood.

When this impulsive behavior is combined with reduced willpower and a perceived need to replenish blood sugar and elevate mood, it is a perfect recipe for overeating.

If overeating was due to occasional stress it wouldn’t be a problem. Our lifestyle and society is not conducive to occasional stress.

nutritionist - portland - or - evolve - nutritional - therapy - holistic - nutritionist - paleo - nutrition - primal - holistic - health - fitness - fat - loss  - weston - price - nutritional - therapy - association - nutrition - diet - exercise - stress - management - nutrient - dense - diet - hydration - fatty - acid - balance - blood - sugar - hormones - adrenal - digestion - healthy - fats - stress - cortisol - adrenal - stress - dopamine - addiction - sugar - fat - overeating - feast- famine - stress- response - fight - or -flight

Comfort Foods = Sugar, Fat and Addiction

We are hardwired to crave dense sources of energy in the forms of sugar and fats, and processed carbohydrates. 

After consuming these energy dense foods the section of the brain that regulates stress starts to calm down and relax.

The reward system in the brain is triggered and dopamine is released to improve mood. It is a slippery slope when someone eats a food to feel better, not out of hunger.

Over time the same amount of food doesn’t elicit the same mood response, and the person has to eat more to achieve the feeling they are looking for.

Slight overeating can snowball into binging in an attempt to alleviate stress and feel better. The feelings of guilt and shame only create more stress and a vicious cycle that begins and ends with overeating.

While we are adapted to handle a certain amount of stress, beyond a certain point it damages our health and leads to cravings, drained willpower, impulsive behavior and eating to make us eat feel better instead of because of hunger.

I highly encourage you to find a form of stress reduction to do throughout the day. It can be taking your dog for a morning/nightly walk, writing in a journal, going to a yoga class or doing a form of meditation.

The very last post of this series is going to be dedicated to different methods that can be used to address each of the problems that stress provides.

In part 3 of this series I’ll be writing on another huge component of overall health that contributes to overeating.. stay tuned to see what it is!

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These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained, while keeping you accountable along the way.


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