What Is Stress Eating Really About? A Doctor Explains Why The Pandemic Might Be Making You Eat More

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If you've been stress eating more during this pandemic, you're not alone! Not only is this a stressful time, but we're also home much more — which means easier access to the fridge and pantry. Even Rach shares how she's seen John, who never eats sweets, stress eat "handfuls of chocolates" from candy dishes in their guest house. 

So when Dr. Ian Smith made a virtual house call to viewers Ryan and Will, who say they've both been craving junk food more often than usual, we could relate. Luckily, the doc is in — and he's explaining why we stress eat and sharing some healthier snack ideas.

Q: "We've been taking on a lot more stress in our life over the past few months with the pandemic—one of the ways that we've been dealing with this is reaching straight for the junk food snacks. What's your advice for how to curb that?"
— Will and Ryan, viewers

What Is Stress Eating?

"When you're stressed out, your body goes into what's called the fight or the flight mode," Dr. Ian says. "Your  body first releases something called epinephrine." This is an evolutionary sense of the stress response. "In the beginning of stress, you actually don't want to eat, because you're preparing your body for an emergency situation. 

However, if you're stressed out too long, your body then releases the big stress hormone called cortisol," Dr. Ian explains. "So your liver makes glucose, because you need energy… If your cortisol stays that way for too long a period of time, you now start to crave more sugar. So you start reaching for those foods that are high in fat, high in sugar, or both."

Why Do We Stress Eat Foods High In Sugar & Fat?

"When you eat the sugary foods, it dampens down your stress response. That's why we call them comfort foods. They make you feel more comfortable and calm you down," the doc continues.

"It’s about the release of dopamine that you get from eating. Glucose—which is sugar, which is the brain's fuel source—causes a dopamine release and that triggers pleasure. And it's natural to seek pleasure when you're stressed. The best thing you can do is make healthier choices that have some nutrients, protein and fiber, so if you're looking for that dopamine release you're at least getting it in a healthier way that will fill you up with fewer calories," Dr. Ian says.

What Are Some Healthier Snacks That Still Satisfy Cravings?

He shares some healthier alternatives to junk food that can still satisfy your sweet or salty cravings.

Salty Craving: Edamame is great for salty cravings, according to the doctor. Plus, as he points out, it's "low in calories, high in fiber."

Sweet & Salty Craving: Dr. Ian's go-to snack is a combination of cubed watermelon and crumbled feta, so you get both sweet and salty.

He also likes making his own trail mix at home. "Store bought has a lot of calories, a lot of sugar," Dr. Ian warns. He likes almonds, cashews, no-sugar added granola and no-sugar added dried cranberries. Try portioning out single servings in plastic baggies so you have a healthy snack ready to go when you need a bite.

Sweet Craving: Frozen yogurt-covered fruit is a naturally sweet snack that's super easy to make. Just dip fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, whatever you like!) in plain Greek yogurt and pop them in the freezer on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet for about 25 minutes.

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