Top tips to manage stress eating!
Stress eating and/or emotional eating is a term all too familiar to most of us. A term that often when brought up, almost everyone in the room agrees to have struggled or to struggle with it as if it was completely normal. Stress eating is not normal- it is extremely common, but it is not normal or healthy and it is important that we talk about it.
So why do we eat when we are stressed or facing difficult emotions? Because for most of us, food offers comfort. Unfortunately, it is the unhealthy foods ie. those dense in processed sugars, fats and calories usually offer the most comfort. If we reached for fruits and veggies in times of distress, there wouldn’t be a problem. But for most of us, our nutrition goals go out the window and we reach for the most convenient, and often least healthy thing in sight. The problem is that we don’t eat simply to satiate hunger and fuel our bodies. We eat for several psychological reasons such as to relieve stress, comfort ourselves, fill emotional voids and even reward ourselves.
Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up or treat isn’t harmful – but when eating these types of foods becomes the only emotional coping mechanism you can soon become stuck in an unhealthy cycle, whereby the root of the problem is never addressed. We eat to feel better, but more often than not leave ourselves feeling worse, over-stuffed and further away from our fitness goals than ever before.
Does this sound like you?
Signs of a stress eater;
- Do you eat mindlessly after an unpleasant experience such as an argument or tough day at work? Even if you aren’t hungry?
- Do you crave specific foods, such as sweets, chocolate, crisps when you feel low or at certain flash-points in the day? (ie when stuck in traffic / immediately after work).
- Does eating feel like an escape, or make you feel better in the moment when you’re down?
- Do you often find yourself eating until you are way passed the point of being full?
- Do you have points regularly where you feel like your stomach is a bottomless pit that is never satisfied?
It is important to realise that emotional needs can never be met with food. Although eating may feel like a sense of relief in the moment, the underlying feelings remain. Over time you learn to feel increasingly more powerless over both food and your emotions.
What’s really happening
The stress eating response is not purely a psychological one. Our brains send cues to our bodies when we’re feeling stressed. That’s part of our fight or flight response that helps us deal with perceived threats in our environment. When you’re feeling stressed, your body sends out cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.
Furthermore, brain imaging research has shown that when people binge on carbohydrates and sugars, the pleasure centres of the brain are activated. Research has shown that sugar, like heroin or cocaine, can cause the feel-good chemical dopamine to be released into the nucleus accumben, the part of the brain responsible for pleasure and reward. Sugar can also release endogenous opioids, the body’s natural painkillers, which creates a soothing effect.
We must learn healthier coping mechanisms in response to emotions and stress. This is how you beat emotional eating – by learning to deal with the emotions in healthier ways. Emotional eating tends to be a habit, and like any habit with focus and attention, it can be broken.
Key tips to help with stress eating!
My 2 step process in overcoming stress & emotional eating:
Step 1: Identify your triggers / find the source of stress
The first step toward overcoming emotional eating is to identify what I call your “flash-point”. Learning to recognise that split-second before you begin to binge out mindlessly on food.
In what situations, places or moods do you find yourself mindlessly eating? One of the best ways to identify these patterns is by keeping a food & mood diary. Every time you overeat or reach for your most common junk foods, make a note of what triggered this urge. By taking a few steps back you will probably find a minor negative event that started the downward spiral.
Write it all in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterwards. Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Maybe you always end up gorging yourself after spending time with a critical friend. Or perhaps you stress eat whenever you’re on a deadline. Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, the next step is identifying healthier ways to soothe your feelings.
Step 2: Find new ways to relieve stress
To stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfil yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfilment.
If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, take a bath, light some scented candles, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket in front of your favourite movie.
Stressed? Instead of eating, try some kind of exercise, such as pushups, walking, jogging, weights, or yoga. Try deep breathing or meditating for 10 minutes.
Sadness, depression, loneliness. We often use food as a way to comfort ourselves. What are other ways to comfort yourself? Find a friend or loved one to comfort you. Again, tea can be a good choice. Do yoga or meditate. Call someone. Take a walk in nature. Light scented candles, use essential oils and take a bath.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but some examples of ways you can cope with your needs without food. As you experiment, you might find other ways that work better for you.
Finally, learn support yourself by implementing healthy lifestyle habits. When you’re physically strong, relaxed, and well-rested, you’re better able to handle the curveballs that life inevitably throws your way. Below are the main healthy lifestyle habits that will help you to navigate through difficult times without emotional eating.
- Make daily exercise a priority.
- Aim for 8 hours of sleep every night.
- Make time for relaxation.
- Connect with others.
Take active steps starting today to tackle emotional eating and find new healthy habits to manage stress. Want to know how we can help you to manage this on a 1-1 basis? Contact us today!
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Lacey French, BSc