Stopping Stress Eating Before it Starts
Even when you are not feeling a strong emotion, you may resort to eating without the presence of physical hunger cues. This may happen if you are bored or if you lead a generally stressful life. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, 1 in 3 Americans are under extreme stress.1
When your body experiences stress, it releases two hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. One of the hormones, cortisol, is known to increase appetite. If the stressful episode is temporary, then these hormones usually go back to the normal levels after the stressor is gone. But when the stress is ongoing – which is the case for a lot of us leading a modern lifestyle full of financial worries, work demands, frustrations, and societal pressures – cortisol in the body can stay elevated, which may cause you to overeat on a daily basis.2
Removing or reducing the causes of your stress will help you manage your mindless or stress eating tremendously! But this can be easier said than done – some stress-causing factors may be more difficult to eliminate than others. For example, you may not be able to quit your high-stress job and start a less stressful one the next day. However, you can make small changes to your perspective and your lifestyle that will help put the kibosh on stress. While you work on leading a less stressful life, here are some tips for identifying and putting a halt to stress eating:
When an urge to eat comes on suddenly: As mentioned before in The Secret to Ending Emotional Eating article, physical hunger takes time to build up. If you are suddenly craving comfort foods, it is quite possible that it is due to stress you are experiencing. Rather than reaching for food, try one of these stress management techniques instead:
- Squeeze a stress ball for 10 minutes.
- Enjoy a hot cup of tea in a quiet place.
- Blast your favorite music and dance or sing along.
- Move your body. If you are working at a desk, head to the stairs, go one flight up and come right back down.
- Do some stretches to relieve the tension in your body.
- Set an alarm for 10 minutes and see if you still want to eat when the alarm goes off. Cravings tend to come and go, unlike your real physical hunger. This is a great tip for telling the difference.
When you find yourself munching mindlessly: You may be so out of touch with your body’s own hunger cues that you don’t even realize how full or hungry you are. This could exacerbate your emotional eating. Use these mindful eating tips to help you rediscover what your physical hunger feels like:
- Before you sit down for a meal, try to figure out how hungry/full you are. Ask yourself, on a scale from 0 to 10, how hungry/full am I? (0 is starving, 5 is neutral, and 10 is completely stuffed) If you are at 6 or 7, there is no physical need for you to eat at the moment. Besides, nobody likes to be stuffed. It is so uncomfortable!
- If you are physically hungry and decide to eat, focus on noticing the texture, smell, mouth feel, and other sensations the food provides. This will increase your satisfaction from the meal and help you stop when you are comfortably full.
- Savor every bite! Take your time and enjoy the eating experience instead of gulping down the food. A great tip is to put your fork down on the table in-between the first four bites to make sure you are taking your time.
When you’re about to stock up on junk or trigger foods
- Ask yourself what is your vision for your health? Remind yourself of these goals. Whether it is better health, more energy, looking better, feeling better, more confidence, or better blood glucose control, use these long-term goals to help you get through your current cravings and rethink your lifestyle.
- What steps can you take right now towards this vision? For example, you could buy a healthier option, shop only from your list, buy a single-serve portion, or leave the store.
- Remind yourself of things that motivated you in the past. Perhaps you’ve heard that 100 extra calories per day alone can lead to a 10-pound annual weight gain. If this is not something you desire, decide to make one of the healthier choices that is in line with your vision.
- Remind yourself that you can successfully change habits; people do succeed at creating better habits, and so can you! It’s all about the day-to-day choices you make. Small daily behaviors, not short-lived dramatic changes, will lead to long-term success.
- Limit the co-habits. For example if watching TV brings out the cravings – cut back on TV time or try exercising to your favorite shows. You can lift weights or do aerobics in front of the TV, or play a favorite show on your iPad or other electronic device while walking on the treadmill or exercising on the elliptical.
As you gradually reduce the stress in your life, you will find yourself emotionally craving food less and less often. Conquering emotional eating requires a lifestyle approach, including reducing stress, sleeping well, and learning healthy ways to manage your emotions without the use of food. While it sure isn’t easy, making these lifestyle changes can dramatically improve your life. Never give up, and continue to prioritize your health! Check out 10 Everyday Behaviors That Could Be Leading to Weight Gain.
- APA's Stress in America survey gets widespread media attention. American Psychological Association: 2008.
- Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Mental Health Letter: 2012.