Raise your hand if you’ve ever stress-eaten an entire box of cookies. Or a pint of ice cream. Or a whole bag of chips.
You get the point. When we’re extra stressed, preoccupied or busy, we tend to reach for the quickest, most comforting foods we can find, which usually resemble pizza and mac and cheese rather than salads or grain bowls.
“To me there’s some lack of intentionality in what we’re putting in our bodies when our brain is distracted. We often consume something to hopefully help ourselves feel better, but that’s not addressing the underlying issue affecting our emotional and mental state. It tends to be a short-term fix for what is a more systemic issue,” says Anne Browning, Ph.D., founding director of the UW Resilience Lab.
So, what’s a long-term fix? Eating healthy, to start, which can help you build resilience so you aren’t as affected by stress.
But what does resilience, which is such a buzzy word right now, actually mean?
“Over time we’ve seen the conceptualization of resilience shift from being a trait — you have it or don’t — to a characteristic, something you can change over time that is very internally focused. Ultimately, resilience is a process one has to continuously cultivate,” says Browning.
This is a good thing because it means that, when it comes to using your food intake to up your resilience, you can continually work to improve. (And if you decide to have doughnuts for dinner one night, that doesn’t mean you failed.)
How stress-eating can cause more issues
While it’s completely understandable to lean on comfort foods (and there’s nothing wrong with doing so sometimes), eating less-than-healthy food on the regular can actually contribute to the stress your body is experiencing — essentially making the problem worse.
Stress puts your body into an inflammatory state. This alone can be unhealthy and, if prolonged, can lead to the development of chronic diseases, research shows.
“Your immune system is redirected somewhere else and not fighting with all hands on deck,” explains Natalia Groat, a licensed dietitian who sees patients at Harborview Medical Center. Foods that aren’t particularly nutritious can also contribute to inflammation, she says.
You might notice this in various ways. You could have an upset stomach, feel foggy or sluggish throughout the day, or have trouble sleeping. Maybe you’re even gaining weight, which might not matter to some people but could be an additional source of stress for others.
Overall, less healthy food will probably make you feel less healthy, which puts you at a disadvantage when you’re already down.
How healthy eating boosts resilience
Aside from less-healthy foods contributing to inflammation, healthier foods can actually counter inflammation, too.
“If you’re not getting the right amount of fruits and veggies and whole grains, you’re missing out on getting antioxidants. Those could assist with some of the inflammation going on in your body by preventing or delaying cell damage,” Groat says.
Think of it this way: A sturdy house that weathers the worst of storms needs a strong foundation. Your body is the same. If you help it by providing it the nutrients it needs, particularly during stressful times, you’ll likely lessen any physical symptoms caused by stress and will give your body the strength it needs to get through the rough patch.
How to eat for resilience
If you’re already stressed out, spending hours in the kitchen each night cooking intensive homemade meals isn’t realistic. But there are simple ways you can put a little extra thought into what you’re eating and help your body fight stress in the process.
Keep it simple
Now isn’t the time to try a bunch of new recipes or pretend you’re a contestant on “Master Chef.” Instead, stick to ingredients you know you like and foods you already know how to cook. Don’t worry about making something fancy.
“If you don’t have time to make dinner, grab a rotisserie chicken, some steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies, some minute rice. It isn’t the most gourmet and isn’t going to impress your friends on Instagram, but it’s a well-balanced meal,” Groat says.
Focus on inflammatory-fighting foods
You probably already suspected this, but it’s worth stating: Nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and even fermented dairy products are going to help fight inflammation, whereas things like fried foods, lots of sugar, overly processed foods and lots of red meat are only going to add to it.
That’s not to say you can’t have your favorite sugar-laden mocha if it helps comfort you. Just don’t overdo it. Notice how your body feels after you eat different kinds of foods, and eat more of the things that make you feel good.
Eat more mindfully
Stress-eating is the opposite of mindfulness, in that it makes us scarf down whatever is within reach without paying much attention to what we’re eating or how we’re eating it. Instead, Browning recommends making a conscious effort to try mindful eating.
It works like this: With your plate or bowl of food in front of you, think about what you’re putting on your fork with each forkful. Take a bite and notice all the flavors of the food. Set down your fork while you chew. Pause after you’ve swallowed, then pick your fork up and take another bite.
It may seem silly or sloth-like, but you might notice that it helps you enjoy your food more and feel less of a need to devour everything in sight.
“When you get in that process of setting down your fork, your meals take twice as long and you realize you’re full sooner,” Browning says.
Don’t go on a diet
You may think that going on Whole30 or trying that keto diet your friend raves about will help solve your problems. But that’s usually not the case, says Groat.
“If stress goes on long-term, people may turn to specific diets like the Whole30 to gain some control in their lives, but it always backfires. Honestly, is dieting your primary concern at that moment? It’s probably not,” she says.
Not only can dieting have a negative impact on your mental health — you might compare yourself to Instagram influencers and feel ashamed when you can’t measure up — it also doesn’t do much long-term for your health.
“Think about the endgame. OK, you dieted for 30 days, then what? You’ve thrown your body out of whack, messed up your relationship with food and you’re back to square one or even worse off than before,” Groat says.
Instead, she recommends being consistent in the way you eat and in what you eat. Stick to foods you know make you feel good and that you enjoy eating. Focus less on weight or what you think you should be eating, and more on what feels right for your body.
“The body fights to stay in homeostasis. Whatever is going on with your body, it’s going to fight it because it wants to stay the same,” Groat says.
Allow yourself some comfort food
There’s a reason the comfort foods you crave are doughnuts and French fries rather than kale salads. Our bodies have learned to crave salt, fat and filling, warm foods, Browning says, because those types of foods were historically harder for humans to find.
“When we feel as though something is lacking, physically or emotionally, our body still has imprinted systems that are telling us to store up and take care of ourselves, so we overeat fats and salts, things that historically our bodies were developed to overconsume when there was availability because it was so infrequent,” she says.
While junk food isn’t exactly scarce in today’s world, your body doesn’t know that, so it’s going to keep wanting the same things. And that’s OK. Using all the tips mentioned above, like mindful eating, can help you be more thoughtful about your food choices overall.
And if you do choose to eat that entire chocolate bar? Chalk it up to genetics and give yourself a break.
Be kind to yourself
Just like you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you stress-eat some junk food, don’t get down on yourself for your eating habits in general. Not only will you feel bad about yourself — which isn’t helpful when you’re already stressed — but your guilt or shame is only going to make your situation worse.
“When we see folks motivated by guilt rather than a desire for their own well-being, we see that guilt becomes more salient and we see them make a series of worse decisions about what happens next,” Browning says.
So if you decide to indulge in some chocolate because you’re trying to assuage your guilt, you’re probably going to eat the whole bar. If instead you accept that your body is craving chocolate and decide to have chocolate to make yourself feel happy, you’re probably just going to have a couple pieces.
“Focus on eating for well-being. Realize that you can love and take care of yourself, and have self-compassion. If we have that angle toward what we’re consuming, we tend to be healthier,” Browning says.