If you’ve ever looked at your mom, dad or partner during a difficult situation and noticed inconsistencies in their reactions, it’s not your imagination. Men and women may experience stress differently and respond to different stress triggers. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), women have more physical and emotional responses to stress than men. While these stress reactions play an obvious emotional role, they could also impact diet, exercise and weight.
“When we are stressed, that will affect appetite, which will affect eating behaviors,” says psychologist Marni Amsellem, PhD. “Sometimes, the response is to eat more or drink more. And sometimes, the stress can actually reduce appetites.”
According to the APA’s most recent Stress in America report, 45 percent of women and 39 percent of men said they gained unwanted weight during the pandemic. At the same time, 20 percent of men and 17 percent of women said they unintentionally lost weight during the pandemic.
“The things we put into our mouth can seriously affect how we feel emotionally on a day-to-day basis or even minute-to-minute,” says Mike Fitch, a certified personal trainer and fitness educator. “We might want to reach for the comfort food when life is getting hectic, but the truth is that those foods may lead to systemic inflammation or blood-sugar imbalances that can only add to our feelings of anxiety and stress. Sticking with clean foods that are minimally processed and well-sourced can give us a serious emotional boost.”
Some people eat as a reaction to challenging circumstances, sometimes without realizing they’re responding to an anxiety-producing situation. Often, the situation itself has nothing to do with food, particularly during the pandemic.
“So many more women were leaving the workforce [and] experiencing more stress in response to that division of labor at home, maybe feeling like it was falling more on them,” says Amsellem. “If you already had a plan for child care or education — like your kids were in school — taking care of them and teaching them had not been part of your job description; it was kind of thrust upon you.”
High-stress situations like these could make females more likely to turn to food for comfort or, on the flip side, cause their appetite to drop with so many other things on their mind.
While we often see women portrayed as emotional eaters on TV and in the movies, with characters stereotypically digging into a pint of ice cream to soothe their feelings after getting dumped, this behavior doesn’t solely affect women.
“Men can be emotional eaters, as well,” says Amsellem. “It’s really a learned association where we say, OK, this is how I comfort myself,’ or, ‘This is what I do when I’m bored.’ Whatever the emotional trigger is, the response might be to reach for your favorite comfort food.”
Women often find themselves in caregiving roles, whether they’re looking after their children, parents or partners. Men may also be caregivers, but two out of three family caregivers in the U.S. are women. Many people who care for others put their own needs last, which may increase stress levels. Taking time for yourself and doing activities that you enjoy and find relaxing may help.
“A good recommendation for everyone, but particularly those who have a ton on their plate and they’re taking care of others, is to find time, even if it’s well-disguised, as for time for yourself,” Amsellem recommends.
Even if you don’t have much time, a few minutes here and there for a walk, a meditation or a healthy meal may help you stay in a better frame of mind. Doing so could decrease your desire to skimp on exercise, reach for junk food or adopt unhealthy screen-time habits that may encourage more stress.
“Making small changes in the places you spend the majority of your day can result in big rewards,” says Fitch. “That could mean figuring out creative ways to switch up your work environment or listening to podcasts while on your commute, versus just focusing on traffic. You may find it helpful to create nightly routines that allow you to wind down for bed gradually before actually going to sleep. Those may include turning off electronics and dimming the lights an hour before bedtime or reading a book instead of checking your socials until you fall asleep.”
Whether you’re male or female, practicing mindfulness may help you lower your stress levels and better focus on your diet or exercise habits and goals. Recognizing what you’re actually doing and how that differs from what you’d like to be doing may keep you from eating in response to emotional stimuli.
“The first practice is awareness,” says Fitch. “When you begin to feel stressed, are you able to link it to anything specific? Keeping a log or journal and looking for repetitive patterns and triggers can be the first step in deconstructing your stressful day.”
Being kind and understanding toward yourself may also help.
“We can be our own worst enemies,” says Amsellem. “That only raises stress. So [try] being a lot more compassionate to yourself and more mindful of your decisions in the moment.”
Both men and women can benefit from exercising regularly. Physical activity has been research-proven to lower stress levels and increase mood. Just be sure to watch the intensity, says Fitch. During high-stress situations, pushing yourself to the physical limit may do more harm than good.
“It’s important to remember that exercise is also a stress,” says Fitch. “An already stressed person may not get the most benefit from going out for sprints or taking a HIIT class. Instead, they may want to think about taking a long walk with a friend or playing a sport or activity that they really enjoy.”
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