When the Going Gets Tough, Do You Crave Comfort Foods?

Ah, food! A great way to forget your troubles and be happy - or so it seems. Actually, good nutrition can be a way of reducing stress, but, unfortunately, stress has the ability to alter your eating patterns for the worse. Many times the result is more stress, not less.

The prevalence of overweight and obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States . Numerous federal and private studies and reports over the last thirty years consistently indicate that the proportion of adults who are overweight or obese has grown by about 20%. What happened in the past few decades? How did the girth of our nation manage to reach these epidemic proportions? The math is pretty simple: too many calories in and not enough out. In other words, you get fat when you eat too much and don't exercise enough.

Unfortunately, it's not a black and white picture of exercise and diet. There are a lot of gray areas. You must also look at the behavior and environmental factors contributing to overweight and obesity. There must be other things at play here - like STRESS! Look at the average American's lifestyle: less personal or family time and more extracurricular activities than ever to keep you moving at a frantic pace, even on weekends. There are long commutes, long work hours, less personal time, less time spent eating together around the family table (without the TV blaring) and more divorce and single parent households.

Stress has the ability to upset a balanced lifestyle by disrupting eating and exercising habits and altering schedules. When under stress, your eating habits may be affected in one of two ways: you will eat more or eat less than you need. Unfortunately, most people tend to eat more when stressed and more of the wrong kinds of foods. Common practices include skipping breakfast, eating snacks laden with sugar, fat and salt, and finding dinner at fast food restaurants. Add to that not exercising, smoking, not getting enough sleep, sitting for hours in front of the TV or computer...no wonder you are stressed!

Stress can trigger emotional eating cravings that have nothing to do with hunger. When the going gets tough, you may tend to crave comfort foods that you remember fondly from your youth. Comfort food preferences vary by person and by gender but the top picks include anything with salt, sugar and fat. Popular comfort foods include chocolate, pizza, cookies, pasta, ice cream, fresh bread and chips.

Maintaining good eating habits keeps your body healthy, helps control stress. How is your overall diet? Rate your eating habits on the following items by rating them 1 (never) to 5 (always):

  • I eat a variety of foods.
  • I understand portion sizes and eat all foods in moderate amounts.
  • I choose lean meats and non-fat dairy products.
  • I eat a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains.
  • I eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • I eat a healthy breakfast each morning.
  • I limit my consumption of fast foods.
  • I limit my consumption of desserts and snack foods high in sugar and fat.
  • I drink 8 glasses of water daily.
  • I limit my consumption of sodas and caffeinated beverages.
  • If I drink alcoholic beverages, I do so in moderation.
  • I listen to my body's cues and eat when I am hungry.
  • I maintain a healthy weight.
  • I am physically active most days of the week.
  • I avoid smoking and chewing tobacco.

How did you do? The higher your score is above 60, the more you are in tune with healthy habits for your body. Much below 45? The Stress Owner's Manual by Drs. Boenisch and Haney offers help!

Adapted from The Stress Owner's Manual: Meaning, Balance & Health in Your Life (2nd Ed.), by Ed Boenisch, PhD, and C. Michele Haney, PhD. Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, Inc., PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016,  or phone 1-800-246-7228.

Page modified or reviewed on January 24, 2014