Are stress eating and food insecurity related? 

Have you ever felt the need to plop down on the couch with a bag of chips or cookies after a stressful day? Maybe you reach for some other type of food that might help you feel a little better in the moment. That’s what we call stress eating and it’s pretty common. Eating foods we crave somehow helps us feel better – even if what we pick isn’t always the most nutritious choice. There’s actually a scientific reason for stress eating.

More and more studies are showing that stress can have a major impact on our relationship with food. Chronic stress causes our bodies to release a hormone called cortisol, which increases our appetite. With stress eating, people often select foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat. This may be a result of elevated cortisol levels in combination with high insulin levels. Some studies suggest that ghrelin, another hormone our body produces under stressful conditions, may be responsible.

According to Harvard Medical School, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to dampen stress-related responses and emotions, making these foods truly “comfort” foods because they seem to counteract stress, which may contribute to our tendency to crave these foods when we engage in stress eating.

People who are food insecure are often under a lot of stress and pressure as they navigate the tough choices required to make ends meet. Do I buy medicine for my child or food? Can I pay rent and still have enough for groceries? This is particularly true in Silicon Valley, where the high cost of living requires many of our neighbors to work multiple jobs and live in crowded conditions just to afford housing.

“Low-income households are more vulnerable to stress eating, and the issue lies deeper than it just being about food itself – it’s also about seeking safety, comfort and filing a much deeper void,” says Alex Navarro, Director of Community Nutrition at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley.

“The daily stress our clients deal with directly influences food choices and food behaviors that go beyond decision and willpower. Lack of food security, lack of affordable housing, and lack of access to enough nutritious food for their families are very real adverse experiences that clients face.” – Alex Navarro, Director of Community Nutrition at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley

Stress and uncertainty may never go away 

For people who are struggling to pay bills and put food on the table, this stress and uncertainty may never go away. Everyday activities that many of us take for granted become very stressful when you don’t have enough resources. Imagine how stressful it is shopping for food when you don’t have enough money, or sending your kids to school without enough to eat, or trying to get to work without reliable transportation. These are all daily occurrences for many families dealing with food insecurity, and job losses during the pandemic and the soaring inflation that followed has only made matters worse.

“Everything across the board costs more money now,” says Joseph, a Second Harvest client who is raising three children. “Our gas prices have increased by 300%. We have to think in terms of optimizing every single trip that we make so that we aren’t making additional trips anywhere just because the cost of gas is so expensive. The electricity bill is way higher than it used to be. We’re rationing water and it’s still very expensive.”

Research confirms that the type of stress Second Harvest clients are under can significantly impact stress eating, food choices and health. According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “stress and our emotional responses to poverty and environmental uncertainties such as employment, food and housing insecurities are regulated by the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, and can influence health behaviors that play an important role in food choice, consumption and diet-related chronic disease processes.”

Second Harvest distribution, San Jose

Stress disrupts our relationship with food 

“When this type of stress is prolonged in our bodies it can lead to a damaged metabolism, inflammation, decreased self-regulation and increased cravings for sugar, fat and salt – ultimately disrupting a healthy relationship with food,” Alex explains. “The ‘feast or famine’ mindset may also occur in our clients who experience poverty and food insecurity. That means they may overeat under stress because food is available at that moment, but it might not be later.”

Alex leads a team of nutritionists at Second Harvest who help clients build a healthier relationship with food. They provide nutritious recipes that are also delicious, offer food tastings, and suggest ways to be more mindful when it comes to eating.

“We help clients become more aware of their eating in a nonjudgmental way,” Alex explains. “We share tips on how to pay attention to your food without distractions, using all your physical and emotional senses in order to best enjoy the food choices you make. You would be surprised how many people – after first being doubtful and hesitant – feel calmer, safer and more in control of their food choices after they practice our mindful-eating exercise.”

Providing consistent, transparent access to food can also help to reduce some of the stress and uncertainty that comes with being food insecure. Second Harvest distributes fresh produce and other nutritious groceries in neighborhoods across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties at regularly scheduled times. People can count on food being available from Second Harvest at their local distribution site when it is scheduled. Giving clients the opportunity to choose the items they want can also help to build a healthier relationship with food.

“One thing that really stood out to me [about getting food from Second Harvest] was the farmers’ market-style distributions,” says Tina Sunseri, a former client who now serves on the Second Harvest Board of Directors. “It was such a fun experience as a kid because you got to choose anything that you wanted, and we didn’t have to worry about how much it was going to cost. Other times, when we’d go to the store, it was always like, ‘Okay, do we really need this? How much is it?’ Whereas, at that distribution, we were able to just go around and pick out the things that we wanted.”

Stress eating is something many of us do to cope with stress and anxiety, and it’s important not to shame people for their food choices.

“There is so much that can influence a person’s food choices and unhealthy behaviors around food,” Alex adds. “In our Community Nutrition department, we continue to be intentional about how we incorporate these conversations with our clients, expand our education efforts, foster community connection and build healing factors around stress and the relationship with food.

Second Harvest client, San Jose