7 reasons why it's hard to eat healthy when you're stressed

by Heather Thatcher

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Did you know that the food marketing industry spends five-hundred times more money getting us to buy foods that contribute to weight-gain than global health organizations spend on disease prevention?

Yes, you read that right.

500 times more money is spent on enticing us to eat highly processed, high fat, high carb food than global health organizations spend to try and improve our health.

No wonder obesity and weight-related health problems are on the rise.

If that just blew your mind, this is for you!

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When we’re living in stressed out survival mode, with our Inner Critic making the decisions, we’re very reactive and easily influenced by what’s going on around us even if we’re not aware of it.

But you’re here because you want to get back in control of your life, and that means that YOU are going to start becoming conscious of the external and internal factors that influence your decision making.

And my goodness, there are so many things that are affecting your ability to make conscious, healthy choices around what you eat. 

 Here we’re going to look at the top 7 things that subconsciously make us crave high-fat, high-carb, comfort foods because by bringing our awareness to these things, we can minimize the impact they have on us.

We’re going to be starting the initial process of rewriting that brain program so that we can get out of default survival mode and have it be easier to follow the healthy diet that we really want.

Let’s get to it!

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#1 – Stress 

Have you ever noticed after a long stressful day that you crave rich, processed, carb-heavy, sweet and salty treats? 

There are so many reasons why this happens, and no it has very little to do with willpower.

In fact, your body’s chemistry is working against you. 

When we’re stressed, our body releases more of a hormone called Cortisol. Like we talked about back in episode 4, when we’re operating in the sympathetic nervous system, that fight, flight or freeze response our body is working on overdrive.

Many of our body systems like our heart, lungs, and muscles are doing a lot more for us, and that means that they need more energy to keep up with this increased demand.

Our tired little cells reach out to our brain in the only they know how and they say “Hey, Brain, we’re starving down here! Get us more energy!”

Now our brain responds by sending out more cortisol around our body, and one of the things cortisol does is trigger us to find more food. And, because our body’s fuel source is something called glucose, which is a fancy name for one type of sugar, cortisol causes us to crave foods with lots of sugar. That also means we crave carbs, because carbs get broken down into glucose in our body.

Again, our body is just trying to help us be successful and manage this high energy state – but it works against your waistline.

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#2 – We value multitasking

Raise your hand if you’re guilty of eating while working, driving, watching TV, on your phone, or otherwise distracted!

You’re not alone.

A poll was done of 1500 people from the US and 91% of people admitted to eating while doing something else.

So….how are you supposed to notice when you’re full if you’re not paying attention?

Cars manufactured 20 – 30 years ago didn’t even come with cupholders! And about 10 years ago, cupholders had to increase in size! Which leads me to my next point.

#3 – Portion sizes have grown exponentially

Muffins have become MASSIVE, sandwiches are now foot-long subs, restaurant portions have become so much larger, and if they aren’t big enough we don’t feel we got our money’s worth.

Popcorn containers from the movies in the 1950’s held two cups of popcorn. Now, we get twenty-one cups of popcorn!


There was a study done that looked at fast-food portion sizes in an American city and compared them to the exact same fast-food meal in Paris and the portions in the US were 25% larger on average. 

Wild, right?

The next thing that separates us from our European friends is that we like to buy in bulk.

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#4 – We love a deal

There is much to be said for buying more food at one time because we can save money – and that’s really satisfying.

I saw this in action when I was meeting one of my clients. We decided to meet up for ice-cream and then go for a walk while we talked. You could get a single scoop for $4 or a pint of ice-cream for $6. 

My client, who was trying to lose weight, almost went for the pint of ice-cream just because it was a good deal!

Don’t even get my started on all-you-can-eat buffets. It’s like we see the price and think “challenge accepted” and eat enough to make sure we get our money’s worth!

Saving money is a strong motivator for us, and the food industry knows it. Simply by putting a sign like “buy two get one free” or “3 for $10” persuades us to buy more. Warehouse stores like Costco depend on this desire to save money by buying foods in bulk.

But there’s a problem when we buy in bulk.

#5 – Food is always within reach

If you have more food in your house, or stashed in your desk drawer or glove box of your car – you’re going to be visually cued to eat more food.

It’s the same theory that we talked about when you walk into the staff room and see cookies on the table and you didn’t even realize you wanted a cookie until you saw them there. 

But if goes way beyond our personal environments of our homes, cars, and workplaces.

There are convenience foods at the gas station, in the checkout line at craft stores, home hardware stores, there are vending machines everywhere, and I even saw granola bars at a doctor’s office once.

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#6 – Food is everywhere

What we’re talking about here is part of a workshop series and online program that I teach to transform your relationship with food, and at the in-person workshops I always ask people to notice all of the different stores, signs, advertisements and cues that they see on their way home that have to do with food and everyone is shocked when they start to pay attention to this.

I used to have a 15 minute walk to work, and in that 15 minutes there were over 40 different things that could subconsciously trigger me to think about food. Isn’t that wild?

You can try this, too. On your way home from work, just start counting the number of fast food restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, signs and advertisements that are related to food. 

No wonder we struggle to eat healthy! Our subconscious mind is being constantly triggered to think about food, in the same way that we were triggered to crave a cookie when we see them on the lunchroom table.

Plus, all these places that are advertising food have more than one option for you and there’s a reason behind that.

#7 – When we have more options we eat more

There was a study done where a large group of people were brought in to watch a movie. The participants thought that they were there to critique the movie, but the researchers were actually looking at how options and variety influence the way we eat.

Half of the people were given bowls of candy with seven different kinds mixed in, and the other half were given bowls of candy with ten different kinds mixed in. The people who had ten different kinds of candy ate 43% more candy than the group who only had seven choices.

Food marketing companies use the heck out of this food psychology trick. Just think about the chip aisle. How many different kinds of chips are out there right now? And how many times have you bought chips and gone for more than one option so you can try some different flavors.

Think of the drink aisle. When our grandparents were growing up there was apple juice, orange juice, milk, water, tea, coffee…that’s about it. But have you seen how many different kinds of juice you can buy now?

It’s overwhelming.

So you see, it’s not your fault.

There are so many ways that this powerful, expensive food marketing industry is influencing your default survival mode programming and making you crave unhealthy foods.

But, by increasing our conscious awareness of these influences, we’re able to use these things to our advantage.

For example, the fact that we eat more when there is variety is a really easy way for us to eat more vegetables.

Instead of just preparing one vegetable as a side for our dinner, prepare 2 or 3 or 4 different veggies, and use this food psychology to your advantage.

Sound like a plan?

Which of the 7 reasons surprised you the most?

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