If you are having to deal with a lot of stress in your life at the moment then you may be tempted to cope by overeating or comfort eating in general. Christina Neal reveals how to break the vicious cycle of overeating.

Eight years ago, my life was very stressful. I was caring for my mum, who had dementia, and juggling a demanding job. I was comfort eating to cope with the stress. After work, I’d look after mum, and then flop down on the sofa and sink three large glasses of wine while eating a whole bag of Doritos, usually with cheese. My weight steadily crept up. I justified my habits by telling myself that I needed ‘treats’ to help me cope. Life was very hard, and there was nothing I could do to change my circumstances.

In short, I felt that my life was out of control and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t cure my mum’s dementia. She would never get better. I couldn’t afford to leave my job. Life was about getting by.

Then one day, I realised I had a choice with my health. No one was forcing me to overeat. I could stop. My health was the one thing I could control. I hired a personal trainer, changed my diet and lost 20lbs. My emotional state improved tremendously. I felt so much more upbeat and positive and better placed to deal with the stress of being a working carer.

Why we comfort eat

It’s very common to comfort eat when we’re stressed, but what makes us do it? ‘Stress affects our brains,’ says Uxshely Chotai from The Food Psychology Clinic (thefoodpsychologyclinic.co.uk). ‘When we are stressed or tired, the part of our brain that makes conscious choices for us, our pre-frontal cortex, stops working as effectively. Stress affects our brains in a similar way to when we get drunk. As our pre-frontal cortex stops working as effectively and we stop being able to consciously control our food choices, we have less willpower to resist urges to over-eat on foods we would not otherwise choose to eat.’

Our urge to comfort eat could also be caused by a need to associate with our childhood memories – a time when many of us felt safe and loved. ‘Stress often triggers an emotional eating response – often we go for food that is associated with good childhood memories like ice cream or chocolate,’ says Rick Hay, Director of Nutrition at Healthista (healthista.com). ‘Sometimes the carbs in food can help with a serotonin feel good boost.’

How can we stop comfort eating? Firstly, know that you have a choice. You don’t have to do it when you’re stressed. There are other ways of coping. Exercising when you’re stressed is a positive choice, but don’t overdo it if you’re feeling burned out. Do something you enjoy, but if you’re feeling very tired, light exercise like a gentle walk, Pilates, swimming or yoga might be best. High intensity exercise like circuits or boxercise when you’re tense, and your muscles may be tight could increase injury risk. Running is well known for its mental benefits and has been described as ‘moving meditation’. It’s a chance to shut your mind off and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other in a rhythmic way. A gentle jog could be perfect.

Exercise for emotions

Don’t underestimate the benefits of exercise for emotional wellbeing. According to the mental health charity Mind, regular cardiovascular exercise like running can be more effective at treating mild to moderate depression than taking antidepressants. When you exercise, your anxiety levels will drop and your mood will improve. You may feel a reduction in stress levels and you’ll also be able to think more clearly. As you gain confidence through your running, your self-esteem will increase, which can also reduce the likelihood of feeling depressed. Being more active in general will be good for your emotional wellbeing too, along with getting outside and making the most of the fresh air.

Mind has stated that switching from a sedentary lifestyle to regular  cardiovascular exercise at least three times per week can reduce your risk of depression by up to 20 per cent. Outdoor runs can be ideal for lifting mood. ‘The colours, sounds and smells of the great outdoors stimulate our senses in a way that the gym or urban environments don’t,’ says Mind press officer Camilla Swain from the charity Mind. ‘This can help relieve stress and clear our heads of day-to-day pressure.’

Rick Hay says there are certain foods you can eat that will help to combat stress. ‘Try to go for nutrient dense options, think berries or green smoothies,’ he says. ‘The more colourful the snack the more stress reducing the vitamins and minerals. Leafy greens contain magnesium with nuts and seeds helping to boost vitamin B levels, both of which help with mood. Chocolate can boost mood – the key nutrients involved are theobromine and serotonin – there’s also phenylalanine which helps to boost dopamine. Moderation is key though as too much sugar – found in chocolate – can depress mood. Try darker organic chocolate for best results.’

Dealing with stressful situations

‘For those who want to lose weight, it’s really key first to understand and unpick the major stressors in their lives. Often finding ways to manage or resolve the stress they are dealing with will really help them get on track and have the health and weight they would like,’ says Uxshely Chotai. ‘When I treat people who want to lose weight, I always ask what else is going on in their lives and encourage them to deal with factors that may be causing them stress. Resolving and managing stress more effectively is really crucial yet often not discussed part of achieving a healthy weight.’

I felt I had no choice but to put up with my stress. That wasn’t entirely true. My mum would never get better, but I made life a bit easier by bringing in more carers. And that job I thought I couldn’t afford to leave? I managed to leave it four years ago. Stress can be managed with some careful planning.

Why do we reach for chocolate when we feel stressed out?

‘Certain foods, such as sugary foods like chocolate, light up reward centres in our brains which make us feel good,’ says Uxshely Chotai. ‘This explains why we often feel inclined to reach for these unhealthy foods when stressed. However, the good feeling we get is only temporary and often followed by a crash in energy as insulin is released by the body to deal with the sugar. While unhealthy and sweet foods can often give temporary relief and good feelings, it can also cause extreme highs and lows due to the highs and lows in blood sugar levels that eating these foods results in. A diet high in sweet and processed foods is likely to cause an imbalance of gut bacteria, which in turn often results in poor mood and can cause conditions such as anxiety and depression.’