Dr Clare Bailey: How to avoid the stress-eating trap

When we’re anxious or stressed, we often have the urge to reach for sweet and starchy foods – a slice of buttered toast, a biscuit or three…

It isn’t just greed. Although self-control plays a part, your body is also flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, causing cravings, particularly for sugary foods that give you an instant energy hit. This isn’t necessarily a problem if your stress is short-lived, but over time chronic stress and raised cortisol can wreak havoc with insulin levels, as well as the hormones that play a role in regulating appetite. The result is that your body stores fat, yet you feel hungry all the time.

Maite Franchi

To add insult to injury, the extra weight tends to be laid down as the more harmful visceral fat – the kind that’s stored in and around your abdominal organs – which is associated with diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

How to break the vicious cycle? Take a two-pronged approach: combat stress and fight back against metabolic imbalance. It sounds daunting, but these small changes will make a noticeable difference…

Reset your appetite

Raised insulin not only makes us gain weight, it also makes us hungry. An effective way to counter this is by eating a moderately low-carbohydrate diet. Cut back on starchy carbs such as bread, potatoes, white rice and pasta, as these rapidly turn into sugar.

Download some ZZZs

Sleep is a great antidote to stress – but it’s a catch-22: when you’re stressed, it’s hard to drift off. Try the NHS-recommended sleep app Pzizz (free, with in-app purchases) which uses ‘dreamscapes’: a mix of music, voiceovers and sound effects designed to help you sleep better.

Eat Mediterranean

There is evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet – high in fish, olive oil, legumes, nuts, fruit and vegetables – can increase natural stressbusting hormones by boosting the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut.

Try a three-minute stressbuster

This breathing technique stops stress in its tracks and can be done anywhere – on the train or at your desk. Place both feet flat on the ground. Breathe in steadily through your nose for a count of five. Then, without pausing, let the air flow gently out of your mouth for a count of five. Repeat for three minutes.

Be more active

Whatever your level of fitness, getting more exercise has been shown to reduce stress. The more sedentary you are, the faster you will benefit. Search online for the NHS Fitness Studio, which has 24 free instructor-led videos covering yoga, aerobics and more.

Make time for mindfulness

Regular practice will make you feel calmer and more in control of cravings. Visit headspace.com for ten-minute mindfulness meditations. There are ones dedicated to fighting stress, eating mindfully and losing weight.

Talk to someone

There is often a strong emotional component to stress-eating. If you’re really struggling, talk to a GP or psychologist. Find local services by searching the therapist directory at bacp.co.uk.

Are you getting enough calcium?

Many adult diets lack a sufficient amount of this mineral. This can lead to weak, fragile bones (osteoporosis) and affect heart health as low calcium levels increase the risk of cardiac arrest.

Over-18s need 700mg of calcium a day and, while dairy products are good sources, so are green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, soya beans, tofu, nuts and bread made with fortified flour. Fish where you eat the bones – sardines and pilchards – are great sources, too.

You can check your calcium intake with the International Osteoporosis Foundation’s handy online calculator by visiting iofbonehealth.org/calcium-calculator

If you have a question you would like answered, email drclarebailey@you.co.uk