As a caregiver you are a talented, multi-tasking person. Every day you juggle your loved one’s needs and care with those of your family, as well as your own needs. As you know, this constant juggling of so many activities can be stressful. As a result, you may turn to food for relief. Unfortunately, too much stress can lead to unhealthy food choices, overeating, weight gain, and a poor mental attitude about yourself, family, and the person in your care. It’s important to understand the reasons you turn to “comfort” eating to help you feel better—at least temporarily.
Stress Affects Cravings
Research shows the high calorie foods we crave can have a temporary calming effect on the body. 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 glucortoids—then cause cravings for high sugar and high fat foods. Overeating these foods can lead to an increased amount of fat being stored in the abdomen.
Fats, sugar, and salt make food taste good and can make us feel better in the short term, but beware! When you eat too much fat, sugar and salt, you gain weight and may experience chronic health problems such as:
Learn Your Triggers
Most people have a tipping point when it comes to stress. As a primary caregiver, you’re constantly balancing activities for your loved one, family, and yourself. 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. Being aware of and understanding your stress triggers for overeating can help guide you in finding alternative ways to deal with them. Here are a few suggestions:
Following any of these suggestions—or developing your own plan—will help you recognize stressful situations in the future, so you can deal with an issue in a positive manner that doesn’t necessarily include running to the refrigerator.
Keep Healthy Foods Handy
There are some foods that 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’s a variety of nutritious fruits, vegetables, and nuts to choose from:
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 your loved one. 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.
September 2003 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dallman & Pecoraro