For most of us, when we’re stressed, sad, or overwhelmed, it becomes all too common to abandon our healthy eating practices and reach for the comfort foods.

Stress and Weight Gain

“Eating habits are greatly influenced by stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions, regardless of what triggers them - politics, work, or personal relationships,” says psychotherapist Dr Steven Stosny.

For example, constant exposure to terrorism scares and climate change warnings, Stosny says, “creates a war zone mentality in your brain, with each headline seeming like a little missile attack you’re hoping doesn’t hit you.”

It’s not uncommon to put on kilos in response to major life stressors, sometimes called “weight shocks” by researchers, whether the shocks are personal or global in nature. (Germans call weight gained from emotional overeating kummerspeck - literally, “grief bacon.”) Simply thinking about a stressful event that you’ve experienced makes you burn 435 fewer kilojoules (104cal) - about 5kgs worth per year - per a study in Biological Psychiatry. One culprit is hormones, says obesity-medicine specialist Dr Fatima Cody Stanford.

“When you’re upset, levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise, prompting cravings for sweet or high-fat foods.” Those urges are a throwback to prehistoric times, when we would stockpile kilojoules in anticipation of famine. When you freak out over current events, “your body thinks, Something I care about is at stake, and it compels you to eat,” says dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield. You’re likely to choose comfort foods cake and pasta because carbs act like anti-anxiety drugs, she says, “stimulating the body to produce the feel-good chemical serotonin.”

No Rest for the Worried

A social media habit can also make you lose sleep, another pathway to extra kilos. When you lag behind in z’s, your body can release ghrelin, the “feed me!” hormone, says Scritchfield. Late-night scrolling compounds the problem: The headlines may get your blood boiling and the blue-screen light from your device affects how much and how well you sleep. Sleep deprivation also hinders your greatest weapon in the fight against stress: exercise. Not only does working out spur endorphins, but it fuels emotional resiliency.

“When you work out hard,” says Scritchfield, “your mind often says, ‘I want to stop.’ But if you press through those push-ups or that last five minutes of a run, it’s like strength training for your brain. It builds mental toughness.” So the next time you’re faced with an emotional challenge and you want to eat chocolate, you realise, You know what? I’m stronger than this. And you are.

Try these easy ways to curb your emotional eating and feel slim and happy.

© Prevention Australia