Whether it’s a bad day, something upsetting has happened, or a reaction to an unexpected expense – food tends to be a source of comfort. Even though in the moment it seems like a good idea to turn to food, often it’s regret (and a stomachache) that follows. So how can you stop stress eating before it happens?
Why you eat when you’re stressed…
Stress eating is a routine reaction to ease an emotion – whether it’s stress, loneliness, boredom, or some other negative feeling. Carbohydrates and sugar, especially those found in snack foods, activate the reward center of your brain by flooding it with dopamine. This pleasurable effect makes you feel good instantly and reinforces this way of eating.
If you are highly stressed over a long period of time, also known as chronic stress, cortisol levels rise and will cause an increase in appetite. Cravings for energy-dense food, those high in fat and carbohydrates, also increase.
The mental and physical reasons you eat when you’re stressed make it very difficult to avoid.
How to identify stress eating
Stress eating occurs not because you’re hungry, but because of an emotional reason unrelated to hunger.
You may notice that stress eating occurs in between or after meals, or at times when you logically shouldn’t be hungry.
If you think you may be hungry – try drinking a glass of water before eating. Sometimes you’re thirsty and it may feel like hunger. If the urge to eat subsides after drinking some water, you may have only been thirsty.
Also, you may notice that you gravitate towards stress eating at particular times of the day – like after your kids go to bed or right after you get home from work.
Stress eating can show up without even realizing that you’re doing it. If you find yourself eating something and you can’t really explain the reason behind it – this is stress eating.
What to do if you find yourself stress eating
If you’re struggling with stress eating, it’s important to recognize the root cause for a solution to address it.
Next time the urge strikes, slow down and take a moment to think. The food isn’t going anywhere!
Ask yourself some questions, including:
What “problem” are you trying to solve with food? Identify the emotions that you’re experiencing in that moment. Ask yourself if the food you want to eat will solve the problem or shift your emotional state. Is the consequence of this decision worth it?
It’s also important to note what’s going on in your environment. What was happening in the moments leading up to reaching for the food? What is the state of the current environment of your location? What about the day of the week or time of day is leading you to stress eat?
Once you start to get clear on the situational and temporal factors that cause you to stress eat you can start to identify your triggers. This can help you address patterns in your life that need to change to stop stress eating.
How to avoid getting stressed out in the first place
Stress is a normal part of life. In fact, it’s good for us to have some stress, but if we have trouble controlling it – there’s negative consequences.
There’s several ways to keep stress in check, including getting adequate sleep of 7-9 hours a night. This helps you feel refreshed and restores your energy so you can manage your thoughts and emotions better throughout the day.
Regular exercise is another great way to beat stress. Exercise helps you sleep better too! Exercise is known as a natural stress reliever because of the endorphins released when you exercise, but also because exercise is a controlled form of stress. Challenging your mind and body with exercise gives you the ability to handle life’s stress more easily.
A great way to exercise regularly is to find something you enjoy doing for fitness. Check out your local YouFit gyms for a variety of ways you can get involved in exercise.
Also, eating a balanced diet with whole foods like protein, vegetables, and fruits is helpful to lowering the chance you will stress eat. Not only do you feel better when you eat better, but a balanced diet can help cut down on cravings in the first place. This is one step you can take to mitigate the urge to stress eat. For an easy way to help with healthy meal plans so you can eat a more balanced diet – try the EatLove app.
Alternatives to Stress Eating
As you work on ways to help avoid feeling overly stressed in the first place, it helps to have another activity that can replace stress eating. When it comes to behavior change – it’s easier to replace a habit with an alternate habit rather than kick it all together.
You can either have one or two go-to activities available or create a menu that can be hung visibly in your kitchen (or wherever stress eating often occurs). Reference the menu when the urge to stress eat strikes!
Options to consider are things you find calming and enjoyable. This could be…
- Taking a hot shower or a bath
- Reading a book
- Getting involved in a craft
- Listening to music or a podcast.
- Getting outside for a quick walk – walk the dog, go check the mail, take a lap around the block
- Calling or reaching out to a friend
- Drinking a tall glass of water
- Doing a household chore somewhere else in the house besides the kitchen.
The more you practice the routine of engaging in a fun activity instead of stress eating, the easier it will get! Combine this strategy with some of the proactive measures listed above like lifestyle changes to reduce stress and incorporating self-reflection. With a conscious effort, you’ll soon turn the corner on stress eating.
Even though there are ways to quit stress eating – it can be a challenging thing to do! You may find that some measures work better for you than others. However, keep experimenting and you will find the winning combination of how to stop stress eating.