Why do we eat poorly when we are stressed?

I have an amazing job.  I get to talk every day with people who are driven.  People that are working hard to improve their health, their lives, their bodies, and their relationship with food.  People that have decided to break societal norms and bravely try to do something different. It’s not normal to be healthy in today’s world. It’s not normal to make healthy choices over unhealthy choices when eating out with friends.  It’s not normal to choose to eat a home-cooked meal at home after work. People that do this day after day are brave. Steadfast. Determined. You have no idea how uplifting it is to be surrounded by people like this all day. It’s infectious.   It makes me feel like I can do just about anything!  

However, reality is reality.  As much as everyone wants to get an A+ in life every day, things happen.  Obstacles exist. Our journey to becoming healthy human beings is rarely smooth and seamless.  When these things happen, we typically fall back into old patterns. Not just old eating patterns, but also old thinking patterns and behavior patterns.  People come into my office with weight regain – sometimes just a little, and sometimes a lot. Sometimes it has been a couple of weeks and sometimes months. When I ask, “what happened”, I hear a variety of answers – often something along the lines of:

“I got sick”

“My mom got sick”
“I’ve been under a lot of stress at work”

“I started fighting with my husband”

“This is the time of year my father passed away”

“I’ve been really busy at work”

“My daughter left for college”

All of these things are stressful.  I won’t argue with that. I have these moments too.  Life is stressful and unpredictable and chaotic. However, one of the things that we talk about in my office is learning to weather these storms without giving up on health goals.  If we only allow ourselves to be healthy when life is easy, we are dooming ourselves to failure. Life is rarely going to stay smooth and simple for eternity.  

We don’t stop parenting during stressful times – we keep doing it.  We don’t give up paying the mortgage during stressful times – we keep doing it.  We don’t give up feeding the dog during stressful times – we keep doing it. We keep doing these things because the consequences of NOT doing them are tremendous.  We have a clear vision of what will happen if we let these functional behaviors slide away. We keep doing these things, even when life gets stressful. We keep locking our doors at night – even when we are sick.  We keep making our kids go to school – even when work obligations are piling up. We keep paying the water bill – even when it’s that time of year that we remember the loved ones we have lost. We do these things because we value the outcomes that they provide.  We value having water in our homes. We value our childrens’ education. We value our jobs.  

Until we move health into the category of things that are important and valuable, we can let it slide during times of stress.  As long as we look at our health as an “elective” thing – or a hobby, we can temporarily put it away and pick it back up again later. 

I have always been an avid scrapbooker.  I have forty-some scrapbooks in my bookcase filled with pictures and drawings and mementos of the life that we have lived so far.  I love pulling these out and looking at them. However, as much as I love having these books, keeping them updated is clearly not something that I value as much as other things.  I’m a whole year behind right now. The drawer of pictures and mementos to organize is overflowing. I will get to them – someday. Not while my life is chaotic and overflowing with other things.  My garden is the same way. As much as I love growing lots of my own food, it may not happen this spring. I value it – but there are other things that require my time and energy and unless those things calm down a bit, I might just forego it this year.  These things – scrapbooking and gardening – are my hobbies. Doing them well doesn’t define me – they aren’t part of my identity.  

Because they aren’t part of how I define myself, I’m OK with letting these things slide.  As much as I want to do them perfectly, they can slide into the “deal with later” category.  However, I don’t let our health slide during stressful times – because I value it. Even when life is stressful, I still buy healthy food and make home-cooked dinners happen.  I still pack healthy lunches for my kids to take to school. I still make eggs in the morning. My default and my identity involve healthy eating.  

When we only eat well when we are motivated – when life is going smoothly, we are going to fail at long-term health.  Until we start looking at healthy eating as a valuable part of our identity, we are going to continue to let it slide when things get rough.  If we view it as a hobby – something elective to do when there is some extra time or extra energy, we aren’t going to be successful long-term.  

Stress is going to happen.  Over and over again. We have to assume that during future times of high stress, we are going to continue to do the things that are part of our core identity and potentially let everything else slide.  The solution is to figure out how to make healthy eating part of our core identity – rather than our hobby.

This week I challenge you to do some brainstorming about what you consider your core values versus what you consider your hobbies. What do you value above all else? If you harp at your kids about homework and grades, it’s likely that you consider education a core value. If you pay off your credit cards every month and have a rainy day fund, you likely value financial security. If you take your dog outside in 5-degree weather and stand there shivering as he walks back and forth trying to find the perfect place to pee, you likely value his need to relieve himself where he feels happiest. Where does eating a healthy diet fall in your life? Is it a core value or is it more of a hobby?

So many great things to think about on the journey to wellness and health!

Until next time

Courtney Younglove, M.D.

ATTENTION LAWRENCE PATIENTS: 18th Street is closed at Wakarusa until further notice due to construction. You can access our parking lot via Research Parkway and Research Park Drive. Expect traffic delays and make sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to our office.
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