The last few years were stressful ones for me. As a result, for the first time in my life, I got into the habit of stress eating.
I’m referring to the routine of emotional, mindless eating and snacking. Stuffing myself with junk food, not to fill my stomach, but because I’m bored, stressed from everyday life, overwhelmed, or exhausted.
To make matters worse, sometimes I’m eating without paying attention to the food or really enjoying it. Suddenly, I crave chocolate or chips or pizza and nothing else sounds good. So, I woof it down while watching TV, reading a book, or playing on my iPad. The need to eat isn’t coming from my stomach but from inside my head. I don’t eat until I’m full but until I’m uncomfortable.
Sometimes I start off with good intentions and eat something healthy like veggies but I still can’t get those darn chips off my brain. Not satisfied, I eat a huge bowl of popcorn thinking that will do the trick. I’m full, but I can’t quit thinking about those nachos I wanted in the first place. So I end up eating the veggies, popcorn, AND the nachos. My stomach is so full and bloated, I end up feeling downright miserable. In my twisted mind, I convince myself I should just go for the nachos next time instead of all those extra calories I ate before eating what I really craved. So that’s what I do.
Briefly, I feel better, but then I feel disgusted with myself.
So what can we all do to stop stress eating and avoid the dreaded unwanted weight gain that usually results? Here are some simple tips I plan on using:
Identify Emotions and Triggers
Take comfort, stress eating isn’t all your fault and actually has a logical reason behind it.
When you feel stressed out, your body produces high levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases your appetite and triggers cravings for salty, high-carb, sweet, and high-fat foods. These foods give you a burst of energy and pleasure by increasing the brain’s feel-good dopamine response. Over time, your brain may start to depend on these comfort foods to calm down and feel better.
In addition, if you’re not sleeping at night because you’re anxious, that only makes the problem worse. And if your life feels unfulfilled and empty, food may fill a void.
So, the first step is to figure out what is making you reach for that bag of chips. Does your life feel out of control? Are you frustrated? Overwhelmed? Mad? Anxious?
Focus on the real issues at hand and you’ll be ready for the next step.
Learn to Accept Your Feelings
Often, we eat to avoid feelings that make us uncomfortable. Food is a nice distraction sometimes.
If you’re stressed out about your job or financial pressures, worried about an upcoming event, or stewing over an argument you had with a loved one, it’s usually easier to focus on eating comfort foods instead of dealing with the painful situation.
The emotions won’t go away, however. If you stress eat, you’ll also add the burden of guilt for sabotaging your weight loss goals. This starts a whole cycle – and not a good one. Your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for ruining your diet, you gain weight, feel even more guilty, and then overeat again to try and make yourself feel better.
So, give yourself permission to feel angry, fearful, anxious, guilty, or exhausted. Invite those negative feelings in to visit and accept them with kindness. Eventually, your body and mind will come to understand that these feelings are okay. That you don’t need to comfort yourself with food to protect you from your own emotions.
The truth is when you don’t try and suppress negative feelings – even if they are painful – it will help you quit obsessing over your emotions. Your feelings will lose their power over you. You’ll learn to control your anxiety and deal with negative feelings in more constructive ways.
As a bonus, when you listen to and accept your feelings, you’ll discover what it is you truly need and then make necessary changes in your life.
Pause for a Moment
Take a moment to stop and reflect on why you want to eat. Tell yourself that you’ll put off eating for just five minutes. During that time, you’ll give yourself the chance to make a different choice than reaching for that bag of chips.
Ask yourself how you’re feeling. Understand what is motivating your need to eat and think of a better way to address those feelings. (See the section below for some ideas on positive ways to deal with negative emotions.)
However, if you still really, really want a bowl of ice cream, it may be better to indulge in moderation. As I learned from my experience as related in the beginning of this article, eating a bunch of veggies and rice cakes when you really want some chips or chocolate won’t work in the long run.
“Reach for something you don’t really want, and you’re likely to eat more of it because it isn’t satisfying,” explains Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. So, go ahead and indulge, but step away from that laptop, TV, or iPad, so you can focus fully on the treat you want to eat. Why? If you don’t take a moment to enjoy everything about it, “then the real reason you’re eating it won’t be served,” she says, and you’ll be more likely to give in to other high-calorie foods-not to mention more of them.
Even if you give into temptation and eat something you shouldn’t, you’ll better understand why you’re turning to food for comfort. Maybe you can react differently the next time cravings hit.
Once you understand the cycle of stress eating and some of your triggers, find other constructive ways to deal with your emotions.
If you’re stressed out, turn on some favorite music and dance around the house. Take a brisk walk. Write in a journal. Do something creative like painting or scrapbooking. Practice deep breathing until you feel calm. Get outside and enjoy nature.
If you’re feeling depressed or lonely, call a good friend or family member, pet your dog or cat, or look through an old photo album. If you’re angry, practice the healing art of forgiveness. If you’re bored, plan your next trip or start filling your calendar with exciting events. If you’re exhausted, treat yourself to a soothing cup of tea or a long bath with scented candles.
It also helps to take positive steps to tackle issues that may be bothering you. For example, if financial problems are weighing you down, start implementing constructive strategies toward paying down debt or saving for retirement.
Keep in mind, negative emotions don’t typically last forever. Just because you’re miserable today doesn’t mean you’ll be unhappy tomorrow. But in the meantime, find alternative healthy and positive ways to deal with your emotions.
Pay Attention to What You Eat
Stay away from mindless eating and really appreciate your food.
When shopping, think about the nutritional value of the food you’re buying and how it will make your body stronger. Try out some new healthy recipes. When you’re cooking, use all your senses to appreciate the aroma, texture, color, and even the sounds of the food as you cook them.
And when it’s time to eat, take time to enjoy your food fully. Take small bites, chew slowly, and appreciate all the ingredients, tastes, and seasonings. You’ll be surprised at all the flavors packed into one bite when you do so.
Start Each Day Anew
Finally, be kind to yourself. If you have a setback and indulge in stress eating, start over the next day. Learn from your experience and plan on how you can prevent it from happening again. Focus on the constructive changes you’re making in your eating habits that will improve your health.