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Stressed? - Cake Isn't The Answer

Bad day? Pizza it is. Fight with your partner? Nothing sharing a bag of Whispers can’t fix. As new research reveals what happens in your brain when you stress eat, WH checks over the science

Giselle Wainwright

Standing in the kitchen of the co-working space where I write for a living, I swirl a teaspoon around my third cup of coffee for the day. My mental to-do list runs through my head: three deadlines in the next 24 hours, 12 emails that need a reply now and the CV of a friend that I’ve promised to proofread before her job interview tomorrow. I’m still stirring when I feel the familiar low-key panic bubbling through my body. As if on autopilot, I push the mug to one side and my legs direct me towards the office treat table, where a box of still-warm doughnuts is perched. My fingers are dusty with sugar and strawberry jam coats my lips before it’s dawned on me what’s happened. My name is Giselle and I eat my feelings – specifically, the ones sponsored by cortisol. A row with a family member can send me wrist-deep into a “sharing" packet of chips and the mounting panic of having nothing to wear can drive me straight out of the changing room and under the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. Rational or not, conscious or otherwise, the decision’s been made. And I suspect I’m not the only one for whom a doughnut or two is the culinary equivalent of a stress ball.

A study published last year in the journal Obesity (can you see where this is going?) found that being exposed to high levels of cortisol over several months was associated with being... Kind? Funny? Quick-witted? Nope. Heavily overweight. The study was observational, meaning the researchers don’t know why the link existed, but it suggests that more of us are medicating our frazzled minds with flapjacks than we would care to admit. Meanwhile, a separate study published in The Journals Of Gerontology found that greater relationship stress was linked with increased waist circumference over time. So the two-minute window between the agitated text exchange with your partner and reaching for a jar of nut butter and a spoon is more than coincidence.

The problem is, it isn’t only my waistline that’s suffering. “Emotional eating is a coping mechanism,” says psychotherapist Stella Stathi, who specialises in eating disorders and body image. “But once the comforting effect of food has passed, the underlying emotions will return, which makes it much more likely for the individual to reach for food again, which can turn into a vicious circle. And experiencing this kind of emotional eating can become the trigger for an eating disorder.”

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May 2019

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