Reaching for food to calm down is an all-too-common coping mechanism, whether you’re dealing with a demanding job, strife at home or other stressors. According to an American Psychological Association survey, 38% of adults say they’ve overeaten or reached for unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress, and of those, half do so at least once a week.
Seen as a soothing distraction, stress eating has become an unhealthy habit. The levels of cortisol go up when you’re stressed out and that can boost your appetite and make you crave foods high in fat and sugar. Candice Seti, PsyD, a weight-loss therapist affirms that Fatty and sugary foods (often known as comfort foods) seem to chill out the part of your brain that sends stress signals”.
Emotional eating is only a band-aid for stress, it makes us do unhealthy choices and after that we feel guilty for overeating.
There is also a piece of good news: we can get out of a stress-eating spiral with smart strategies. We just need a plan to better manage the stress in the future, while being compassionate with ourselves.
Avoid getting frustrated as much as you can
Lucy Call, RD says that “Unless you have a replacement food or activity, it’s almost impossible for our brains to hear ‘don’t’ when we tell ourselves ‘don’t eat the chocolate cake”. If you’re stressed by the morning traffic, try leaving home earlier to avoid getting frustrated. Listen to relaxing music or a podcast that you enjoy.
Calm your body and mind by slowing your heart rate and breathing. It seems difficult, but once you master the meditation process, it will come naturally to you. You can start by trying a guided meditation or healthy eating meditation with an app like Headspace or Unplug. Set your schedule for at least 10 days and try to respect a specific time each day.
Take a minute and just breathe
Take a few minutes to practice deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing when you feel yourself losing control of your stress and cravings. “Breathe in through your abdomen and let it fill up like a balloon. Hold the breath for a few seconds, then release and repeat for several minutes,” advises Diana Gariglio-Clelland, a registered dietitian with Balance One. “Focusing on the rhythm and quality of your breath can help take your mind off of the stress and combat it by improving oxygenation in your body and releasing tension in your muscles.” As simple as it sounds, this technique can help you relax and significantly lower your cortisol levels, per a recent study in Frontiers in Psychology.
It’s ok to call for help
“If stress eating is a chronic struggle for you, bring it up with a trusted friend or loved one beforehand and ask if they’d be open to being your go-to person to call when you’re tempted to stress-eat,” says Call. Then, your friend can help you talk out your thoughts and feelings and remind you to stick to your nutrition goals. Working with a professional such as a therapist could also help if it’s a persistent issue.