Reaching for food to calm down is an all-too-common coping mechanism, whether you’re dealing with world events, a demanding job, juggling home responsibilities or other stressors. Thirty-eight percent 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, according to an American Psychological Association survey.
Stress eating serves as a soothing distraction, and, for many people, it’s become an unhealthy habit. When you’re stressed out, levels of cortisol (aka the stress hormone) go up, which can boost your appetite and cravings for foods high in fat and sugar. “Fatty and sugary foods (often known as comfort foods) seem to chill out the part of your brain that sends stress signals,” explains Candice Seti, PsyD, a weight-loss therapist.
Unfortunately, emotional eating only acts as a Band-Aid for stress, and afterward, the stress comes right back, often compounded by guilt from overeating or making unhealthy choices.
The good news is you can successfully get out of a stress-eating spiral with smart strategies that include being compassionate with yourself and making a plan to better handle stress in the future. Here’s how:
IDENTIFY THE STRESSOR
The next time you feel the urge to stress-eat, take a moment to ask yourself, “Why am I so stressed out?” To break the habit of stress eating, it’s important to investigate what’s triggering your stress in the first place, says Lucy Call, RD. Common culprits include work, personal conflicts, financial struggles and many things that are simply out of your control (like the COVID-19 pandemic). Whether you journal on paper or jot a few things down on your phone’s notes app, identifying your stressors can take your mind off of food and empower you to address what’s really upsetting you — like an overpacked schedule or ongoing work conflict — instead of eating to make it go away.
CLEAN UP YOUR KITCHEN
For many of us, stress eating is so automatic and habitual that we hardly think about it — we just grab whatever’s in sight. “In order to guard against this mindless eating, try to keep less nutritious foods out of sight,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. For example, store ice cream in the very back of the freezer beyond the frozen meat and veggies and keep high-calorie junk food in an out-of-reach cabinet or on the highest shelf in your pantry. Even better, make low-calorie, healthy snacks highly accessible by cutting up fresh fruits and veggies and storing them in a glass container front and center in your fridge. Organizing your kitchen for weight-loss success can help streamline healthy habits.
POST REMINDERS OF YOUR “WHY”
When you’re stressed out, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term benefits of making healthy food choices because you just want to feel better ASAP. To get yourself back on track, post reminders of why you want to lose weight on your cupboards or fridge, such as a photo of the grandchildren you want to see graduate high school or the 5K route you want to tackle. “These tactics can create that imperative millisecond of space and time in which you can choose not to seek comfort in food,” says Rickel. Another option: Write yourself reminders on Post-It notes about how good you feel when you get through a night without stress eating.
ADOPT A NEW DE-STRESSING ROUTINE
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,’” says Lucy Call. If your typical wind-down routine is to head for the pantry and plop down in front of the TV, try swapping this for a new self-care routine that’s not food-based, like a brisk walk or evening skin care regime. If you tend to go through a certain drive-thru on the way home after a tough day of work, consider taking a different, more scenic route while listening to some relaxing music instead.
MAKE TIME FOR MEDITATION
Meditation can be a great tool for stress management as you calm your body and mind by slowing your heart rate and breathing, says Seti. If you already struggle with emotional eating, mindfulness meditation can help you have fewer episodes, shows a review in Eating Behaviors. To get started, try a guided meditation or healthy eating meditation with an app like Headspace or Unplug. Set aside a specific time each day and aim to stick to it for at least 10 days, suggests Seti.
STOP AND BREATHE
When you feel yourself losing control of your stress and cravings, take a few minutes to practice deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. “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.
DO A MINI-WORKOUT
Putting in just a few minutes of exercise can help ward off stress eating. “The endorphins [feel-good hormones] released from moving your body and sweating are one of the most effective ways to reduce stress,” says Call. Case in point: Students who did 15 minutes of high-intensity interval exercises after mental work ate 125 fewer calories when offered all-you-can-eat-pizza than those who rested, per a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Make regular exercise a habit by signing up for a calorie-scorching class and committing to going at the same time every week, suggests Call.
BUSY YOUR HANDS
If you tend to find yourself stress eating as a way to self-soothe while you’re sitting around or watching TV, try getting your hands moving with a fun activity instead. “Just taking 10–15 minutes to direct your attention to something tactile and calming can help you forget about your desire to stress eat,” says Liz Wyosnick, RD. This could mean enjoying an adult coloring book, painting your nails, knitting, crafting, foam rolling or even organizing items around your home.
CALL FOR SUPPORT
In stressful times, it helps to have a support system on standby. “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.
HONOR YOUR HUNGER
“Eat consistently throughout the day so your hunger doesn’t build up by the end of the day,” says Gariglio-Clelland. “It’s important to eat in order to feel satisfied and to avoid eating in response to ravenous hunger later — which can be exacerbated by stress,” adds Call. “Try to set yourself up for success and choose options that will make your body feel good.” Think: filling, fiber-rich foods, lean proteins, healthy fats and complex carbs.
TAKE ONE MINDFUL BITE
Think back: How often have you eaten the last cookie or potato chip in the bag only to realize you didn’t really taste any of them? When you’re stress eating, you’re often so distracted and disconnected you eat too much but don’t feel all that satisfied. “Next time you’re in the whirl of it, challenge yourself to slow down for one mindful bite,” says Rickel. Get rid of all distractions, bring the food to your mouth, and take in the smell, sight, sound and feeling of it. Chew slowly to savor the texture and taste, and feel the food move down your esophagus and into your belly before you go for the next bite. Then, repeat the process as many times as necessary. As you practice mindful eating, you might find paying attention to the experience makes you feel calmer and more satiated.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP
On top of stress, sleep deprivation can bring about more hunger-inducing hormonal imbalances (not to mention, lack of sleep can worsen stress), says Gariglio-Clelland. If you’re low on sleep, you’re more likely to reach for low-nutrient, high-fat foods, and you’re more susceptible to emotional eating due to an increase in cortisol. Aim for 7–8 hours of quality sleep each night by unwinding with a smart bedtime routine. Stick to the same schedule and cut off access to distractions (blue light from your phone, laptop and TV) at least an hour prior to going to sleep. During that time, de-stress with other smart choices like a good book or a cup of tea, suggests Seti.
Originally published September 2019, updated with additional reporting
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