Have you been following the story of ‘Lolong’ the crocodile? Lolong is a wild croc who was captured near a remote village in the Philippines just about a week ago. At 20 feet in length and just a shade over 2300 pounds, he’s one of the biggest and baddest around. But when they relocated him to a zoo, Lolong began to show all the signs of stress. For example, he stopped eating.

Stress and eating are strongly related in people too. But there’s a crucial difference between crocodiles and humans. When crocs get stressed, they shun food. When we get stressed, we reach for it.

So why do we tend to overeat when we’re stressed?

Sometimes it’s chemical. Janine is a Facebook friend – and a friend of mine in real life too. When it comes to stress and eating, her Facebook postings tell the whole story. “Had a bad day with the kids today. Bring on the chocolate!” “Looks like we’ll be late with the mortgage payment this month – but there’s always cake!” When we’re in an emotional funk, our brain is depleted of ‘positive’ chemicals like serotonin. A binge of carbs and sugars gives our brains a squirt of serotonin which makes us feel better. It’s like taking Prozac, which is why we call this use of food to make us feel better, self-medicating. But it’s not a good long-term strategy. It’s not healthful, it only masks the stress, and in the end it doesn’t make us happy.

Sometimes we use food as a distraction. A coaching client of mine found himself sticking to a healthful diet until the very end of his day. At around 10 at night he’d reach for the potato chips and easily down a bag – or two – sabotaging his own meal plan. When we set about discovering why, we delved into his thinking. Turns out at the end of the day he’d run his mind over all the things he had on his to-do list that day and didn’t get to. He’d find his stress mounting, and noshing on the chips took his mind off the catch up he had ahead of him.

Do you overeat when you’re stressed? Is your eating tied to the peaks? If so you’re a stress eater. Do you tend to overeat when your stress is low? Then maybe you’re a boredom eater.

If you’re a meQuilibrium customer, check out the meQ exercise on Mindful Eating for more ways to discover your patterns and more tips to stick to healthful meals.

Dr. Andrew Shatté, meQuilibrium Chief Science Officer

Key Thought:

Many of us binge of carbs and sugars to make ourselves temporarily feel better in an unconscious form of self-medication.

This may manage to mask stress, but in the end it makes us neither happy nor healthy.