Why you’re stress eating in 2020 and what to do about it

There are many different words that could sum up 2020, but “stressful” is undoubtedly one of them.

Job loss, a struggling economy, grief, fear for our health and safety, the election, social isolation — the list goes on when it comes to this year’s stress triggers.

And, for the first time ever, we’re having to deal with this new level of stress almost exclusively at home and, mostly, isolated from the people we love and the friends we turn to.

With all of these hours spent stressing alone at home, we’re all finding different ways of coping. And many of us are resorting to stress eating.

Most of us at one time or another have turned to stress eating as a coping mechanism for stress or emotional struggles. It’s quite common and, though it certainly happens more for some people, it’s a fairly universal response. 

But this universal stress response has become heightened this year — and with our pantries and refrigerators only steps away all day, every day, it can become a constant habit.

Why we stress eat

There’s actually a physiological reason that helps explain why we stress eat. When our stress levels rise, our cortisol levels also rise. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It is a natural part of the fight-or-flight response — and it increases the brain’s use of glucose (or, in other words, energy).

As a result, it stimulates our appetite and increases cravings — particularly for high-calorie, high-fat, or high-sugar foods. 

This isn’t so much a problem in the short-term, but when sustained stress happens, or when we’re unable to get out of the stress response, it results in lasting cravings and a more consistent pattern of feeding our cortisol-filled bodies with food. In other words, it turns into regular stress eating.

The stress eating of 2020 

A study conducted earlier in the year found that global levels of junk food eating are up. Approximately 20% of people reported that they gained weight after the lockdown began.

Across social media, there have been memes, posts, and venting about turning to food and alcohol ever since the pandemic started. It’s a shared experience that we’ve all been able to relate to as the months have gone on.

In the time leading up to and during the 2020 election, many people reported eating — and, in particular, eating comfort or fatty foods — as a way to deal with the stress and anxiety of the whole process. During the previous election, there were recorded increases in caloric consumption on Election Day versus other Tuesdays. 

How to handle stress eating

The first component of healthily handling stress eating is to refrain from guilt and self-criticism in response to it. This year has been a tough year for everyone, and it’s more than understandable that we’ve turned to food to cope. Guilt won’t help us and will ultimately make things worse — so it’s just not worth it.

Becoming mindful and aware of the stress eating is a good start. Just notice when it’s happening and pay attention to the kinds of things that are triggering it. This can help us understand our own patterns and habits and open a path toward changing them.

The next step is to find other ways of coping with stress and activities to replace the stress eating. Here are a few that are helpful and healthy.

1. Yoga

Try some gentle stretching and deep breathing to calm your nerves and relax the body. Alternatively, try some vigorous, heart-pumping yoga to get your blood flowing and to give your brain some much-needed stress relief.

2. Take a bath or hot shower

Taking a bath or hot shower can help us relax, and it can also decrease some of the muscle stiffness and soreness that often accompanies stress.

3. Go for a walk

Walking is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most reliable ways of giving ourselves a healthier brain and body. Exercise reduces stress, and nature, fresh air, and being out in the world can do wonders as well. Walking is particularly useful this year, with our lives relatively sedentary and almost entirely indoors.

4. Avoid boredom

Though stress is a main trigger for eating this year, boredom can also cause or exacerbate it. With all this time at home, make sure to find interesting, enjoyable ways to spend your time. Take up hobbies, improve your cooking skills, and spend time with the loved ones you live with. Preventing boredom will help prevent stress eating.

Stress eating has been a regular part of 2020 for many. But it doesn’t have to be. 

While we should forgive ourselves for the ways we’ve learned to cope with this particularly stressful year, we can also find methods of coping with stress in healthier and more sustainable ways.