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- Busy professionals struggle with stress-eating, especially when traveling.
- Leverage your biology, don’t fight it.
- I aspired to look lean and mean like Clint Eastwood.
- In reality I looked a lot more like Michael Moore.
- Read More about how I was defeated by a bag of chips.
Not My Proudest Moment
As a busy executive, my peers would probably describe me using the following words: Rational, objective, logical, analytical, scientific, data-driven, evidence-based, pragmatic, and action-oriented. So why was I sitting in a hotel room half-way around the world staring at an empty bag of chips and loathing myself? And let me be honest here, this was not the usual bag of chips you get with your meal, it was not even a large or extra-large bag, in fact it was a party-size bag, the kind you might take to the beach with a label reading: “Serves 8-10 People”. Salt and Vinegar flavor.
What’s worse, I felt ashamed because I KNEW better. I knew that a single chip was too many and that a thousand was never enough. I knew that I was tired and jet-lagged. I felt the pressure from my business to spend more time delivering the numbers and the pressure from my spouse to spend more time at home with the kids. I even knew the familiar pattern – the longer my business trip, the bigger the fight my spouse would pick as I packed and called a taxi for the airport. I sat there beating myself up over those stupid chips, knowing that any brief pleasure I got from them was not worth the remorse I would feel from overeating. To be honest, I didn’t feel like a strong leader at that moment and I worried that my team and my family would respect me less.
Something had to change. I was having a hard time with my weight. And I was tired of beating myself up over my lack of self-mastery. I initially turned to the Internet for advice. What I found online was lots of women giving other women relational advice about “emotional eating”. Yes, a degree of medical advice was targeted towards most people, but few tips were directed specifically towards men (perhaps 5-10%) and none towards executives (exactly 0%). I realized that I would have to dig deeper and figure out my own solutions. I was also curious. Why don’t we want to eat carrots and celery sticks when we’re stressed?
Here’s what I learned:
Fifteen Reasons Why You Stress-Eat
- The number of adults who turn to food to reduce stress is nearly equal to those who turn to smoking, alcohol, shopping and gambling combined. (Statistical Source: 2008 Stress in America Survey, American Psychological Association). Our body’s built-in reward system, driven by the chemical dopamine tells us to do things that give us pleasure, including eating.
- Carbohydrates set off a series of chemical reactions that ultimately lead to a boost in brain serotonin according to Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., former Health Research director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clinical Research Center. The higher the levels of serotonin, the better you feel.
- There are two hormones in your body that regulate normal feelings of hunger and fullness. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin sends signals to the brain when you are full. However, when don’t get enough sleep, your ghrelin levels increase, stimulating your appetite so that dyou want more food than your body actually requires, and your leptin levels decrease, with the result that you don’t feel satisfied and want to continue eating. So, the more sleep you skip, the more food your body will crave.
- In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, subjects were fed through a stomach tube with either a solution of fatty acids or saline. Both groups then listened to music proven to evoke a negative or neutral emotion. Those given the fat were less sad, and brain scans showed dampened activity in areas associated with sadness. The researchers believe this shows that fatty acids can induce a signal from your gut to your brain, which may influence emotions. Saturated fat appeared to fend off negative emotions. The study is among the first to show that the effect of food on mood is “really independent of pleasant stimuli,” says Giovanni Cizza, M.D., an obesity and neuroendocrinology researcher at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the study. “It is even more rooted in our biology.”
- “Chronic stress creates elevated levels of the hormone cortisol,” says Jeffrey Morrison, M.D. Your body thinks you’re going through a famine, he explains, which can increase your cravings.
- In a 2012 study, Columbia University and St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center researchers found that when subjects were sleep-deprived, seeing pictures of unhealthy foods activated reward centers in their brains. Those centers were less active when the participants were fully rested. Increased reward-center activity may render a person more likely to eat.
- “As children we may have associated food with rewards or comfort,” says Michelle May, M.D. “By adulthood that association becomes ingrained in our minds,” says Craig Johnson, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in eating disorders and the chief clinical officer of the Eating Recovery Center, in Denver: “Children’s brains sometimes aren’t developed enough to use words to deal with complex feelings, so they may use food to self-regulate emotions.”
A 2001 study from Vanderbilt University showed that people consume more in a group than they do alone, regardless of hunger levels. Eating socially “may help you feel like you’re strengthening relationships,” says Jennifer Taitz, a clinical psychologist.
- Research published in the journal “Obesity” in 2007 found that dieters who ate according to internal emotional cues such as loneliness, instead of physical or external cues lost less weight over time and were more likely to gain it back.
- Guilt can lead to uncontrolled eating, says Georgia Kostas, a Dallas-based registered dietitian “If you feel bad about eating a scoop of ice cream, excess guilt may lead you to eat the whole carton. Now you’ve destroyed any pleasure you had hoped to derive from the ice cream.”
- In a 2012 study from the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre, researchers fed mice diets containing different amounts of fat. After 12 weeks, the mice on the higher-fat diet showed more signs of depression and anxiety. The takeaway: Although you initially may feel euphoric from eating fatty foods, the more you do it, the worse you feel.
- In 2007 researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina asked people to taste-test doughnuts. Half weren’t given any special instruction. The other half were given a lesson in self-compassion beforehand. The tester said, “I hope you won’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone in the study eats this stuff.” The result: Those who received the “Be kind to yourself” mandate ultimately ate fewer doughnuts.
- According to a 2012 study from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Oulu, Finland, feeling burned-out can easily lead to emotional eating. Researchers found that people who were overwhelmed while working were significantly more likely to use food as a source of comfort and relief than those who were not.
- Jane Jakubczak, RD, LD, a student health center dietitian at the University of Maryland in College Park estimates that emotional eating accounts for 75% of all overeating. People eat for various reasons besides physical hunger; stress, boredom, and depression are just a few.
- We all have our own comfort foods. Interestingly, they may vary according to moods and gender. One study found that happy people seem to want things like pizza, while sad people prefer ice cream and cookies. Bored people crave salty, crunchy things like chips. Researchers also found that men seem to prefer hot, homemade comfort meals like steaks and casseroles; women go for chocolate and ice cream.
OK, So Now What?
The bottom line from all the clinical research gave me the first insight into how we as executives can manage our stress eating. The fact is, our tendency to overeat under stress is hardwired deep in our biological processes, so battling against our bodies and DNA does not seem the most winnable of fights. But I did feel better knowing that my biological processes were automatic and impersonal – my tendency towards stress eating was NOT a personal failing.
How then to win a losing battle? Sun Tzu tells us that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, or to paraphrase a famous poem: If you want to stop falling into a hole in the street, then walk down a different street. After years of personal experimentation, I cultivated a number of habits designed to help me subdue my stress eating by preempting any battle as much as possible. I also discovered that some of the conventional wisdom (CW) was not helpful at all and left me feeling disappointed.
After years of experimentation, I developed 33 countermeasures to take control of stress-eating.
Also published on Medium.