How To Stop Eating Your Way Through Stress

Health Minute     Winter 2019

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You had a satisfying lunch, but by afternoon you indulge yourself in a fierce craving for chocolate. After a really awful day, you go to the freezer, pull out a quart of ice cream, and eat right out of the container, in a classic move to comfort yourself, says Meredith Jones, RDN, LD, Premier Health dietitian.

Jones’ advice? Create a back-up plan of action to follow when cravings hit.

“Try to have other things to do as a go-to first,” Jones says. “You can tell yourself that if you really want that snack, you’re going to take a walk first or read a book for 15 minutes.”

The desire to eat is often a quick impulse to make you feel better. Anything you can do to take your mind off that need and postpone it can provide time for the craving to pass, Jones says.

Both stress eating and emotional eating can have negative consequences over time, such as weight gain, poor sleep, and reduced interest in exercise.

For many Americans, chronic stress is a norm. According to the American Psychological Association, as many as 25 percent of Americans rate their stress level as eight or more on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest level.

Although stress can shut down your appetite in the short term, chronic stress frequently causes an elevated level of a hormone in your body that increases appetite. Called cortisol, this hormone released by the adrenal glands should return to normal once you’ve faced a flight-or-fight situation that raises your blood pressure. If you’re in a constant state of stress, however, the levels stay up and trigger your desire to eat, especially foods high in sugar and fat. A part of your brain seems to register true comfort and stress relief from these foods.

Some research on stress eating suggests that women are more likely to turn to food for stress relief, while men are more likely to turn to alcohol or smoking.

The Emotional Drive to Eat

Stress, anger, resentment, boredom, loneliness, loss, and frustration all can motivate you to eat when you’re not physically hungry. They crush your willpower and have you seeking comfort foods like pizza, pasta or sweets.

Both stress eating and emotional eating can have negative consequences over time, such as weight gain, poor sleep, and reduced interest in exercise.

How do you know if your hunger is psychological rather than physical? Here are some clues:

  • You eat in response to emotions or situations, not to satisfy hunger.
  • You have an urgent need to eat and crave a specific type of food.
  • You binge eat or eat at unusual times, such as late at night.
  • You don’t feel satisfied, even if you’ve overeaten.
  • You eat mindlessly, without really paying attention to what and how much you eat.
  • You feel embarrassed or guilty about eating and even sneak food or hide empty containers or wrappers.

Adults aren’t the only ones who eat emotionally. Be on the alert for children who follow these patterns to cope with anxiety, loneliness, or stress at school.

To help ward off stress or emotional eating, Jones provides these ideas:

  • Pop in earbuds and listen to your favorite tunes, or music that reminds you of a happier time.
  • Play a board game with your kids; family time boosts our emotional health.
  • Plan for a daily treat, such as a quarter cup of jellybeans or 1 ounce of chocolate at the same time every day.

How Do You Fight Those Cravings?

Paying attention to what you are eating and why you are eating is an important first step to changing your behavior. Your mind knows that eating to resolve stress or emotional hunger isn’t a good long-term strategy. A thick brownie or loaded pizza is a pleasure that brings temporary satisfaction but doesn’t get at the source of your emotion or stress.

“Make sure you are eating a healthy, well-rounded diet to curb cravings,” says Jones. "Plan out your meals for the day so that you know what you are eating, when, and fit in your special treat every day."

Eat well, and you’re empowered to avoid bad eating habits, Jones says. Follow these tips:

  • Don’t skip meals. Cravings are harder to control if you don’t eat at regular intervals.
  • Prepare meals that include lean protein, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Space out snacks throughout the day and keep them healthy, too, by including fruits, vegetables, low-fat yogurt, air popped or light popcorn, nuts, and dried fruit.
  • Stock your kitchen and pantry to make healthy food prep easier.
  • Fill your freezer with frozen fruits and vegetables if you can’t find fresh produce.
  • Keep whole grain cereals, oatmeal, and canned beans, fruits, and vegetables on hand. Buy low-salt varieties in water or fruit juice. Rinse beans and vegetables before eating to reduce sodium intake.
  • Don’t keep high fat, high-carb snacks in your house. Instead, be conscious of the food choices you make when you shop.
  • When you eat, take small portions and small bites, chew slowly, and appreciate your food with all of your senses.

Cooking as a family can reduce stress and make us feel better, Jones says. Look through cookbooks and pick out recipes together. You can turn meal or snack prep into an experience.

“One thing I do when I have a craving for pizza or cookies or brownies is to make it myself at home,” Jones says. “When I take the time to pull out all the ingredients and bake it at home, it slows down the impulse to eat fast.”

When the food is ready to eat, you’re less likely to overdo it. Another way to limit portions is to freeze leftovers for another day.

Try these activities for eliminating unnecessary snacking and binge eating:

  • Exercise to reduce stress, promote physical well-being and better sleep. Moving more also reduces your appetite.
  • Fight boredom. Read a good book or watch a compelling movie or television show.
  • Meditate as a way of clearing your mind, changing your habits, and being more intentional about your food choices. Practices such as yoga and Pilates combine both exercise and meditation.
  • Rest often and get enough sleep so that your body has the energy it needs to manage stress
  • Seek the company of people who make you feel good and help you overcome stress and negative emotions.

If you are concerned about a child who is overeating due to stress or emotion, try to model healthy eating habits. Avoid using food as a reward for good behavior, and promote healthy snacks. Above all, encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings and ways to resolve stress, anxiety, anger, or frustration.

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Meredith Jones, RDN, LD

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