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Emotional Wellness

How to Break the Unhealthy Habit of Stress Eating

We live in a society where something is glaringly obvious: There are alarmingly high levels of both obesity and stress. It will come as no surprise to you, then, that there is a correlation between the two: The more stressed we are, the more unhealthy foods we consume, and the more overweight we get. Breaking that cycle is vital for our health and well-being. In this article, I’ll identify five key strategies to help you break the unhealthy habit of stress eating.

Stress Eating

When we’re stressed it’s natural to want to eat comfort food to make us feel better. The foods that we tend to crave at these times are usually filled with sugar and unhealthy fat. These types of foods have been shown to increase mood-elevating chemicals in the brain.

Woman sitting on a couch in living room under blanket stress eating donuts.
Stress Eating Often Leads to Feelings of Negativity (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Emotional eating leads to a whole slew of unhealthy consequences, including feelings of sluggishness and lethargy in the hours following eating. It also leads to fat gain and all of the health problems that come with it. In addition, stress eating often leads to feelings of negativity and disappointment in having “given in” to your unhealthy habit.

So, are you an emotional eater? Here are five self-analysis questions to help you find out:

  1. Do you eat more when you’re alone, such as when watching TV?
  2. Do you give yourself rewards of chocolate or sweets if you’ve had a bad day?
  3. If you’ve broken your diet and eaten a rich dessert, do you feel so upset that you feel like you might as well give up and eat what you like for the rest of the day?
  4. Does looking in the mirror or weighing yourself make you so depressed that you need a treat to cheer you up?
  5. Do you eat high-fat energy foods, such as peanuts, chips, and chocolate, to get a “pick me up” boost when you are down?

Having identified what stress eating is, let’s consider what you can do about it.

Practice Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is very simple and involves questioning whether you are really hungry or whether your urge to eat is motivated by emotion. It requires being present in the moment rather than just running with your desires. Fundamentally, then, it is a matter of self-discipline.

Woman practicing mindful eating instead of stress eating wearing yellow shirt.
Determine if You Are Physically Hungry or Motivated By Stress (Image Source: Shutterstock)

When you get that urge to eat, stop and give yourself a hunger check. Before you do so, though, drink a full glass of water. Now determine whether you have a physical need for food or if your desire to eat is motivated by stress or boredom. If it’s the latter, don’t allow yourself to give in, and try one of our alternatives, which we’ll discuss later.

Exercise Portion Control

Once we start eating, it can be difficult to stop. As a result, we often eat well beyond the point of fullness, especially when we are stressed. That’s why we need to exercise portion control.

Woman preparing portion controlled meal at home kitchen.
Plan To Chew Your Food 10–15 Times Before Swallowing (Image Source: Shutterstock)

The first step in learning how to stop emotional eating is to slow down when you eat. When we are feeling stressed or in a hurry, we tend to shovel food into our mouths. Forcing yourself to put your fork or spoon down after each mouthful and chewing your food thoroughly will help you slow it down. Plan to chew your food 10–15 times before swallowing. Learn to savor your food, enjoying the taste and texture.

Find Healthier Options

If you find that you really do need to eat something during a time of stress, have healthy options on hand and don’t stock your pantry with bad foods. If you don’t have sugar-laden cookies in your pantry, for example, you won’t be able to eat them. If your craving is for something sweet, make a snack out of sliced apples, cheese, and walnuts. For a savory option, try deviled eggs with hummus.

How to Make Healthy Food Changes – My Doctor – Kaiser Permanente

Identify Your Emotional Triggers

In order to get a handle on emotional eating, you need to identify your emotional triggers. While most emotional eating is caused by stress, positive emotions may also lead to over-eating. Here are the most common emotional-eating triggers:

  • Stress: When we are feeling stressed, the body increases its secretion of the hormone cortisol. This hormone is a trigger for craving salty and sweet foods.
  • Emotional stuffing: Emotional stuffing involves binging on food to crowd out emotions that are disturbing and uncomfortable. In a sense, the food numbs the unwanted feelings, like fear, sadness, shame, or loneliness.
  • Boredom: Food is often used to compensate for feelings of boredom. Eating gives us something to do with our mouths and with our time.
  • Habit: We are profoundly affected by the eating habits we learn from our parents. Perhaps food was used as a reward for good behavior or good grades. Eating can also be triggered by past memories.
  • Special occasions: When we center social occasions around food, we can easily overeat. It is also common for people to overeat when they are in social situations as a result of nervousness or distraction.
Woman sitting on the table eating breakfast feeling stressed out.
Identify The Emotional Triggers That Makes You Overeat (Image Source: Shutterstock)

In order to identify your emotional-eating triggers, keep a food diary. Every time you overeat, note down what you are eating and what triggered the eating episode. Before long, you will see a pattern emerging. Having done so, you can now seek healthier ways to satisfy those feelings.

Learn a Better Way

Here are five alternatives to reaching for food when you are feeling stressed:

  • Phone, text, or Zoom a friend.
  • Switch on a music channel and dance like nobody’s watching.
  • Exercise; this may involve going to the gym, walking the dog, or going for a run.
  • Have a bath, give yourself a massage with a foam roller, or enjoy a hot cup of tea.
  • Start doing your favorite hobby, pick up a good book, or watch an episode of your favorite classic TV show.

Conclusion

Unhealthy eating may be a natural reaction to a stressful situation, but it is not an inevitable one. Use our five tips to help you overcome the stress-eating habit and better manage your feelings of stress.

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