The Relationship Between Stress and Eating




I believe that stress plays a fundamental role in our eating behaviours. The higher the stress levels the more we'll see undesired and unhelpful eating behaviours in our lives.


As a personal trainer and fitness professional it would be easy to take a certain issue such as over-eating and provide generic advice such as to consider eating less.. but this doesn't help. The reality is that the relationship between healthy eating and weight loss is rarely about someone not knowing the basic principles of nutrition, such as calories in vs calories out. If it was as simple as this then most people would have very few challenges managing their eating habitual patterns to meet their desired end point.


From my own personal experience I feel that a dysfunctional relationship with food is down to a high stress environment and an internal resistance and lack of compassion to ourselves. Issues such as unhealthy social media use and the endless advertising of junk food all take advantage of our high stress lives for their self gain, further increasing stress and perpetuating our unhealthy relationships with ourselves, resulting in this unhealthy relationship with food.


Usually the reasons to our relationship to food is linked to our desire to reduce the stress in our lives, and to make us feel better. So how can we reduce this stress?


We can reduce this stress by firstly becoming more aware of how we are feeling. This is especially useful to do whilst we are eating. When we are aware of how we are feeling we will become more aware of certain triggers that lead up to our eating behaviours that we want to stop.


From my own example, if I am feeling bored and frustrated I would usually eat. This stressful feeling of frustration and boredom makes me want to eat. I'm not necessarily sure why this is, but I do know it makes me feel better for the short term, especially if it is chocolate or processed foods. Sometimes this can happen almost automatically and I would have eaten so much with hardly having even been aware, not even really having tasted the food and definitely not enjoyed it.


In the event that I was more mindful and present then it would lead me to question whether I was missing an opportunity to find nourishment to myself elsewhere. I could look at my boredom and frustration and change my mind-frame around this. Maybe instead of looking at boredom negatively and as purposeless and self-critically, I could turn it around and seeing it in a positive way. I could see boredom as an opportunity to give my body a chance to rest. I could see boredom as an opportunity to practice self care. I could understand that in this moment of boredom, the difficulty and frustration is arising due to an underlying unease with myself causing this stress and gently meet that unease with kindness and without criticism, and let myself feel that discomfort without judgement and labels. Of course, easier said than done! Overtime I believe we can re-wire our brain and be less reactive, changing the endless patterns we find ourselves in.


When I'm feeling stressed and find that it is affecting my relationship with food (or relationship with spending or internet use etc etc) I can notice the triggers and do a number of helpful actions. These include connecting with people by giving a friend a call or arranging a date to eat together, I could set up a meditation practice to develop my self awareness and reduce stress by using an app such as Headspace, Calm or the one I used over lockdown was called Balance. I could take our time to prepare a healthy meal, after all depriving ourselves of food is not what we're looking to do, we can instead cook a nourishing meal made with love and care for ourselves.


If we have recently binged on food or any other behaviour such as unhealthy fasting practices we can be less judgemental about our own actions and aim to understand ourselves better and what is leading to our unhealthy relationship with food. We may do this with the help of a qualified therapist or someone specialising in the area we need support in. I personally, am currently working with a therapist looking at my own habitual behaviours in certain areas of my life which is what has inspired this short write up.


Overall my aim here is to convey that we may need to look a little deeper at why we do the things we do, with more presence and awareness and sometimes we may need to bring in the help of a professional. We can be so critical of ourselves for not sticking to so called simple health and fitness rules such as weight loss equals calories in vs calories out, for example, but we are not machines and inputs and outputs are emotional in human lives. Give yourself some slack, kindness and awareness... and maybe get some support on your journey.


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