That many people's waistlines expand during the holiday season is a well-established fact. But, as a new study found, the reason why most of us overindulge at this particular time may not be so much the countless opportunities for extra munching but rather the need for extra comfort due to heightened stress.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, showed that participants who had a tendency to reach for food when stressed did not continue to do so after they were more relaxed, even though they were given equal access to the comfort foods they craved when they felt tense.
Other participants had reverse reactions. They ate less or stopped eating altogether in acutely stressful situations and compensated (or often overcompensated) for the deprivation afterwards when the tension ebbed. In either case, eating was connected to their stress experience rather than the availability of food.
Stress eating, or emotional eating as it is sometimes called, is not yet fully understood by scientist. In fact, the expression "stress eating" itself should be a contradiction in terms. Acute stress as a short-term response supposedly blocks the desire for food due to hormone releases in the brain that suppress appetite. But when high stress levels persist, as with chronic stress, cortisol, an appetite-stimulating hormone, secretes in the adrenal glands and remains elevated until the stress period ends, which may be indefinite.
Some foods seem to be more effective for stress relief than others. Comfort foods, which are typically highly processed and filled with fat and sugar, are among the favourite choices of the chronically stressed. These are also the kinds of food that one can easily snack on, often mindlessly.
Overeating, of course, is not the only widespread response to stress. Because of its energy-draining and exhausting effects, both physically and mentally, stress prevents many people from exercising and often from getting enough sleep. Alcohol and/or drug use, not unheard of among stress sufferers, add to the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain and other body dysfunctions.
So, what makes us so much more vulnerable and so inclined to succumb to our cravings during the holiday season? The fact is that this is no holiday at all for most people who find themselves burdened with many additional tasks and obligations while their everyday lives still must go on as usual. Thus, stress sources multiply. That, at least, may be one reason.
Still, whatever we do to cope with those challenges, it is important to understand that we are not helpless when it comes to controlling our impulses. The first step towards making positive changes is to become more aware of our tendencies and then take the necessary steps to counterbalance them.
For example, do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you can limit your access to your favourite treats. Do you easily forego exercising and make excuses for staying sedentary? You can draw up a fitness plan and join in with like-minded people who can hold you to it. Are you chronically sleep-deprived? You can make a point of increasing your sleep time. The list can go on and on.
It would be naïve to think that all this can be accomplished with a quick resolution. Far from it. Instead, I recommend to start with one thing, something concrete you can take on right now without further delay. How about, this holiday season, I give myself the gift of an hour daily to take care of my health and my peace of mind? It doesn't matter what exactly you choose to do. Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, whatever. Stay with it, and that gift might just keep on giving.