Comfort Eating & Stress

Written by Julia Mor: “Julia Mor is a nutritionist working in healthcare and currently diving deep into the world of nutrition and behaviour with an MSC at Bournemouth University. She has a soft spot for exploring how gut health ties into our mental well-being and a particular interest in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).”

Comfort eating, often employed as a coping mechanism during times of stress, may inadvertently hinder the body’s ability to recover from stressors. While seeking solace in food can provide temporary relief, research suggests that it may impair the body’s natural mechanisms for stress recovery, aggravate the negative effects of stress on overall well-being.

Recent studies have shed light on the intricate relationship between comfort eating and stress recovery. One study found that individuals who engaged in comfort eating exhibited blunted physiological responses to stress, including elevated cortisol levels and prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system. (Tomiyama et al 2011)

Moreover, the types of foods typically consumed during comfort eating episodes, such as high-fat and high-sugar foods, can exacerbate the physiological effects of stress. Research has shown that consumption of these foods can lead to increased inflammation, oxidative stress, and impaired immune function (Gibson et al 2019), further compromising the body’s ability to recover from stress.

Additionally, comfort eating may perpetuate a cycle of emotional eating, wherein individuals rely on food as a primary coping mechanism for stress without addressing underlying emotional triggers. This can lead to maladaptive coping strategies and reinforce unhealthy eating behaviours, hindering the body’s ability to adapt and recover from stressors. (Zellner et all 2006)

Breaking the cycle of comfort eating and promoting effective stress recovery requires a multifaceted approach. Strategies may include:

Awareness and Mindful Eating: Increasing awareness of emotional triggers for comfort eating and practicing mindful eating can help individuals make conscious choices about food consumption and develop healthier coping mechanism (Alberts et all 2012)

Stress Management Techniques: Incorporating stress-reducing activities such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and social support can mitigate the physiological effects of stress and promote faster recovery (Firth et all 2019)

Nutritional Support: Prioritsiing nutrient-dense foods that support stress recovery, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, can provide essential nutrients and antioxidants to combat the negative effects of stress (Gibson et al 2021)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Seeking professional support through therapies like CBT can help individuals identify and challenge maladaptive thought patterns and behaviours associated with comfort eating, promoting healthier coping strategies (Linardon et all 2020)

By recognizing the impact of comfort eating on stress recovery and implementing proactive strategies to address it, individuals can support their body’s natural resilience and promote overall well-being in the face of stressors.

If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety and need support, consider visiting https://www.mind.org.uk/. They offer a wealth of helpful tips and resources. Additionally, they provide contact numbers if you need to speak to someone for assistance.

References

Klatzkin R. R., Gaffey, A. E., Cyrus, K., Bigus, E., Brownley, K. A., & Zucker, N. L. (2018). The impact of emotional eating on physiological and psychological stress response in women. Physiology & behaviour,

Gibson, E. L. (2019). The psychobiology of comfort eating: Implications for neuropharmacological interventions. Behavioural pharmacology,

Zellner, D. A., Loaiza, S., Gonzalez, Z., Pita, J., Morales, J., Pecora, D., & Wolf, A. (2006). Food selection changes under stress. Physiology & behavior

Alberts, H. J., Thewissen, R., & Raes, L. (2012). Dealing with problematic eating behaviour. The effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on eating behaviour, food cravings, dichotomous thinking and body image concern. Appetite,

Firth, J., Marx, W., Dash, S., Carney, R., Teasdale, S. B., Solmi, M., … & Stubbs, B. (2019). The effects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychological medicine

Gibson, E. L. (2021). The psychobiology of comfort eating: implications for neuropharmacological interventions. Behavioural pharmacology

Linardon, J., Mitchell, S., Rigid, M., Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M., & Farrow, C. V. (2020). A systematic review and meta-analysis of cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders involving binge eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders,

Standen, E. C., Finch, L. E., Tiongco-Hofschneider, L., Schopp, E., Lee, K. M., Parker, J. E., Bamishigbin, O. N. and Tomiyama, A. J., 2022. Healthy versus unhealthy comfort eating for psychophysiological stress recovery in low-income Black and Latinx adults. Appetite, 176, 106140.

Tomiyama, A. J., Dallman, M. F. and Epel, E. S., 2011. Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: Evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36 (10), 1513–1519.

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