How to deal with stress eating
by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND
Stress eating? It’s time to acknowledge & change your behavior.
Stress eating doesn’t usually take away stress, and often adds pounds. Years ago, one of my patients gave me a refrigerator magnet that said, “’Stressed’ is ‘Desserts’ Spelled Backwards”.
Emotional eating was a big challenge for her – and pretty much any emotion would do. It didn’t really matter if she was feeling sad, lonely, angry or anxious – for each one, she had an edible antidote. The problem was, this emotional eating wasn’t making her feel any better – and it sure wasn’t making it any easier to lose weight. Emotional eating happens to most of us from time to time. Maybe you’ve cheered yourself up with a bowl of ice cream after an unusually tough day, or sneaked a few French fries from your best friend’s plate while recapping a disastrous date. But when emotional eating gets out of hand – when eating is the first and most frequent response to negative thoughts and feelings – it’s time to get a grip.
What is stress eating?
Stress eating – or emotional eating – is pretty much just what it sounds like. It’s when you eat in order to escape whatever bad feelings you’re experiencing, in the hope that food will make you feel better. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision (“my boss really ticked me off today … I deserve a pizza”), but more often it’s just a mindless response to a vague, negative emotion that you can’t quite put your finger on. You may not know what’s bothering you, but you’re pretty sure that food is the one thing that will cure whatever ails you.
Is it emotional or physical hunger?
There are few tell tale signs that can help you distinguish emotional hunger/stress eating from true, physical hunger.
- Emotional stress eating usually comes on suddenly. You start feeling stressed or tense, and wham! …you’re craving nachos. On the other hand, physical hunger tends to come on gradually. You’re starting to feel hungry, but you can wait to eat – which gives you some time to choose wisely and satisfy that hunger with something that’s good for you.
- Stress eating usually causes a craving for a food that’s sugary, fatty and high calorie – and often very specific (not simply “chocolate”, but “a slice of triple layer fudge cake from Fred’s Diner on 6th Street”). But when you’re physically hungry, food – in general – sounds good to you. You’re willing to consider several options that will satisfy your physical hunger – which means you’re more likely to make a better choice.
- Once your physical hunger is satisfied and your stomach is comfortably full, it’s a signal that you’ve had enough, and you tend to stop eating. But when emotions are the driver, it’s easy to ignore what your stomach is telling you – and you wind up eating way too much while attempting to make yourself feel better.
- Stress eating might lift your mood momentarily – then just as quickly, shame and guilt often move in. Then again, when you finish a meal that’s satisfied your physical hunger, you don’t usually feel guilty afterwards for having eaten.
Tips for dealing with stress eating behaviors
- Keep a food journal. A food journal can really help you see what triggers your stress eating. Whenever you feel the need to eat, make a note of how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = I’m faint with hunger; 10 = I’m so stuffed I have to loosen my clothing). Then write down how you’re feeling at the moment. What triggered your need to eat? Are you actually hungry – or are you feeling sad or anxious?
- Own up to your feelings. You know that emotions are the trigger for your stress eating, so why not acknowledge them? It’s okay to be mad or lonely or bored sometimes. The feelings may be unpleasant, but they’re not dangerous – and you don’t always need to ‘fix’ them. Let your emotions come and go without judging them – they are what they are.
- Work on your coping skills. Every time you eat in response to stress, it’s just a reminder that you can’t cope with your emotions. When stress strikes, try asking yourself, “what’s the worst thing that will happen if I don’t eat?” Yes, your stress level might rise a bit – but the feeling will pass. If you never let yourself simply experience the stress, you’ll never find out that it’s probably not nearly as bad as you thought it would be. Practice tolerating your emotions, or finding other ways to deal with your stress.
- Find alternatives to eating. Take a few moments to reflect on your feelings and think of ways you can solve your problem. Make a list of things you can do instead of eating. Take a walk to clear your head, listen to music, meditate, read, or call a friend and talk things over.
- Unlearn your bad habits. Emotional eaters continually reinforce the idea that the best way to treat negative emotions is with food. And like other bad habits, stress eating happens before you’ve even had a chance to think about it (bad day = five hours of television + one quart of ice cream). So, you need to “un-learn” your bad habits and practice doing something other than eating when a bad day strikes.
- Wait it out. Stress eaters often are afraid that if they don’t satisfy the urge to eat, the craving will just get worse and worse and worse. But, when they practice delaying tactics, they’re often surprised that the urge simply passes. Rather than immediately giving in to your urges, promise yourself you’ll wait a few minutes. Chances are, you’ll get distracted or busy, and the craving will pass.
Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to work on your stress eating. If you find that these tactics aren’t working for you, ask your health care provider if counseling or group support might be helpful for you.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.
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