Stress sends me into a spiral of eating anything and everything that has sugar and fat in it like candy, ice cream, salty snacks. You name it, I want it.
If an important interview, first date, deadline, in-law visit or public speaking engagement sends you straight to the refrigerator or pantry to calm yourself down, chances are you’re a stress eater.
It’s one of the biggest issues I see among overweight individuals and without getting stress eating under control, weight loss is almost impossible. For many, stress eating is an unconscious behavior, so if you do it, you may not even realize it.
Stress eating is a form of emotional eating, which is a blanket term dietitians and psychologists use to describe eating in response to positive or negative emotions, like feeling happy, sad, lonely, bored, nervous, panicked, angry or stressed. It’s a way we essentially self-medicate to help us cope with stressful situations. Our bodies are designed to eat out of physical hunger (when your stomach feels empty and is growling) rather than external cues or emotional state of mind.
Almost everyone is an emotional eater to some extent, but overweight people tend to use food as one of their main sources of comfort, solace and other feel-good feelings. When we use food feed our emotions, weight gain almost always results. Studies with animals and humans show that under stress, hunger hormones are impacted and we crave high-calorie, high-fat “comfort” foods. One study of women found that those reporting chronic stress had more abdominal fat, the most harmful type of fat.
Stuffing emotions with food only makes matters worse in the long run: you’ll feel bad about yourself and that, in turn, may lead you right back to the kitchen!
1. Just WAIT: When you’re reaching for those chips, cereal or peanut butter think WAIT, which means What Am I Thinking? This gives you a chance to ground yourself and evaluate if you’re really physically hungry or just emotional. It also means wait 10 minutes before you eat something. In 10 minutes, if you still really crave the food, then you can serve yourself a single portion to see if it satisfies your craving. In most cases, just thinking WAIT will help you realize that you aren’t physically hungry but you’re feeding your emotions.
Emotional eating can stem from many coping mechanisms we develop in childhood or later in life. No matter how this habit started, it’s important to break it to keep calories in check so you can lose weight. You’ll have to learn to retrain your brain to turn to a more healthy form of providing yourself a source of love and comfort will serve you best throughout your life. Whether it’s a massage, time to relax, a chat with a friend or taking a mental break to enjoy something online (ie, Home Décor on Pinterest or looking at the sales on Gilt.com). Often, just a few minutes of redirected energy can help you get over your stress-induced desire for food.
2. Document It: We always recommend keeping a food journal to anyone trying to lose weight, but it’s especially important for stress eaters and other emotional eaters. You can keep a food log online or write it down in a simple calendar or notebook. You should write the time of day, how you feel emotionally, what you ate, how you felt afterward and rank your hunger. (See third tip below.)
3. Ask Yourself, “Am I Hungry?”: One of the best ways to beat your bad stress eating habit is to get back in touch with eating when (and only when) you’re truly hungry. The only way to do that is to assess your hunger before you eat. Using a hunger scale is how I recommend my clients get back in touch with eating in response to hunger rather than emotions. Once you realize you’re not truly hungry, then have a plan in place on how you’re going to console yourself while you’re feeling emotional. One technique that’s often practiced is deep belly breathing. Try taking 10 deep inhales in through your nose and out through your mouth and reassess how you feel after the 10 breaths. If you’re still panicked, call a friend or search online for
4. Move Your Body: Moderate physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce stress and boost the feel-good chemicals in your brain. It may be the last thing you think you have time for when you’re under stress, but getting up and moving your body (go for a walk, try a CrossFit WOD) will not only help alleviate the stress that’s causing you to eat, it has also been shown that it can help you be more productive. Taking several mini breaks to move is your best ally when you’re anxious.
5. Focus on Quality Foods: Getting rid of your go-to foods in times of extreme pressure is one way to help stop the stress eating habit. Chances are, your comfort foods aren’t fruits, veggies, lean proteins or whole grains. They’re probably sweet or salty snack-type foods that are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor. When they’re not available, you may decide you have a better way of dealing with your feelings than throwing cheap, junk-food calories at it.