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When Caregiver Stress Leads to Overeating

Overwhelmed caregivers often turn to food for comfort. Here's how to take control

En español | Why do stressed-out caregivers so often reach for chocolate chip cookies and other high-calorie foods? It's because they have a temporarily calming effect on the body, research shows. But they're also unhealthy, and as a caregiver the last thing you need is to undermine your health. So it's important to understand why "comfort" eating makes you feel better and also how to keep it under control.

A report recently published in Physiology & Behavior suggests that the stress response system plays a role in how we crave foods and store energy. When the body is under stress, the neurochemicals that help balance our moods do not function properly and the body releases stress hormones. These stress hormones — called glucocorticoids — then cause cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods. Overconsumption of these foods can lead to an increased amount of fat being stored in the abdomen. And the added weight gain puts you at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Stress related to caregiving can lead to unhealthy food choices

Research shows that high-calorie foods have a temporary calming effect on the body. — Istock

Learn your triggers

Most people have a tipping point when it comes to stress. A single unexpected incident can upset the rhythm of your day, triggering an emotional outburst that often sends you to the nearest container of ice cream, bar of chocolate or bag of chips for comfort.

How can you learn what triggers your emotional overeating and understand how to address it in a healthy way? First, become more aware of situations or comments that upset you, and examine how they make you feel. Then, think about how and why the foods you eat make you feel better. From there, work on finding alternative ways to deal with those situations when they arise. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Talk with a friend or a family member about your feelings as a release for your emotions, rather than eating
  • Keep a journal to record your feelings when you're tempted to overeat
  • When you feel you can't overcome your stress-related overeating alone, seek professional counsel to assist you

Following any of these suggestions — or developing your own plan — will help you recognize stressful situations, so you can deal with an issue in a positive manner that doesn't necessarily include running to the refrigerator.

Keep healthy foods handy

Some foods can actually help your body repair itself from stress damage and also reduce cravings for high-sugar and salty snacks. The trick is to make healthy foods accessible and ready to eat. For example, place a bowl of apples and bananas (or another fruit that doesn't require refrigeration) on your kitchen counter, and keep washed, bite-size vegetables, whole nuts and seeds in the refrigerator. These healthy choices not only help satisfy your immediate "need to eat," but also offer important nutrients. Here are a variety of nutritious fruits, vegetables and nuts to choose from:

  • Oranges, strawberries, broccoli, spinach and peppers are high in Vitamin C
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, whole grain bread or leafy green vegetables have plenty of B vitamins
  • Almonds, whole grains and sunflower seeds are high in magnesium
  • Walnuts and flaxseed are rich in omega-3 oils

Listen to your body

As your loved one's primary caregiver, it's important to recognize how you're feeling both physically and mentally every day. Chronic stress can have a negative impact on you and, in turn, can compromise the level of care you provide. So the bottom line is "Take care of yourself." Get the counsel and support you need to help manage your stress and make smart, healthy food choices regularly, so you're feeling your best as you care for your loved one.

This story was previously published by Johnson & Johnson

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