Updated: Apr 7, 2022
Before you can understand why you get the munchies when you're stressed I first need to explain how the brain and digestive system work together to keep you safe.
Quick guide to the digestive system during stress
If there is something stressful happening the body switches into survival mode (i.e. it's on high alert: muscles contract; blood pumps faster and so on). These parts of the body that are ready for action need extra energy to get through the stress and fuel fast responses to the emergency (to run away, fight or freeze).
So in the short-term the brain borrows some energy from the digestive system to do this. Your gut copes by reducing the mucus and blood flow required to digest the food. It therefore empties out the system quickly (cue running to the loo and feeling sick) i.e. it saves the energy required for the brain by having less to digest.
As your stress peaks you may therefore notice a decrease in appetite as this all takes place. In fact the stress hormones are designed to damped appetite at this point so the chances are that you don't feel like eating much at that moment. Often the over-eating happens in the immediate aftermath...
Why you get the munchies straight after the stress has peaked
The stress hormone cortisol is designed in the short term to get us moving so we feel pumped and energised (and can get ourselves to safety). But this involves burning through energy very quickly. As a result you crave high carb and sweet foods as these release energy into your blood stream very quickly, helping to keep you going for longer and replenishing your depleted energy stores.
In one study two groups of participants were given access to a buffet, one group got to eat after giving a speech, the other group didn't have to give a speech at all. The group who ate after giving a speech ate around 34g more carbohydrates than the other group (because giving speeches is stressful!).
In addition to this, research shows that high-fat foods literally do feel comforting, in that they sooth the physical sensations of anxiety. This includes early-life stress such as youngsters being separated from their primary care-giver, which can lead to very intense levels of distress.
So if you emotionally eat to cope with stress it means that at some point in your life you found a quick and easy way of relieving the pain or discomfort caused by anxiety and stress.
It's important to understand that this is the function of emotional eating so you can plan alternative ways of meeting this soothing function before trying to curb the eating behaviours. Doing this prep means you're likely to have more success (i.e. to manage it more frequently when your anxiety or stress has been triggered).
What can you do to manage stress-eating behaviours?
Map out your triggers. Think about 'hot-points' in your day when you are most likely to feel stressed and make a plan of action that includes calming your nervous system down as a first step. E.g. you can use this 3-step technique to calm down or try a breathing exercise or running up and down the stairs to expend your adrenalin.
Put the foods you are most likely to reach for in a hard-to-get place and put some healthier foods in your line of sight. Tiny habits author Fogg talks about the importance of making unhealthy behaviours as hard as possible to do to help us in those moments when we can't rely on our motivation (which is exactly the case in this situation). So for example, I make sure all the chocolate is in the utility room behind the washing machine to help with this.
Remember that quite simply no apple is gonna cut it in the same way that a slab of chocolate is! It's just not going to have the same effect on dampening the distress I'm afraid. But if you can practice making the healthier choice in combination with the stress management ideas in this blog, then it will get easier.
Stick an affirmation up on the fridge door (or screen-shot on your phone) to remind yourself of your commitment to calm your nervous system before replenishing your energy stores so you can make a choice that fits with your calm/rational mind. E.g.
"I'm probably not as hungry as my stress is telling me, I need to practice my breathing before I eat"
5. Try to manage your stress levels more generally so the build up doesn't get too much. See this IG post for ideas on this.
6. Practice ways of soothing your nervous system when you're not stressed so you can slip into them more easily when you need to use them. Consider therapy or joining my Untroubled programme if this is a long-standing problem. These will help you to understand your triggers in a more in-depth way and help you to set weekly goals to reduce patterns of behaviours that you're unhappy with.
Check out this blog by Nutritional Therapist Ione Rucquoi on healthy food choices for your mental health.
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