How to Stop Eating Your Way Through Stress

Health Minute     Winter 2019

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.

Whether you’ve experienced similar moments or just witnessed them, stress eating is not a myth. It’s a very real reaction to stress in your life. And 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.

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

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.

Here are some clues that indicate psychological rather than physical hunger:

  • How to Stop Eating Your Way Through Stress smallYou 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.

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.

Try these tips for eliminating unnecessary snacking and binge eating:

  • 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.
  • Exercise to reduce stress and promote your physical well-being. 
  • If you’re bored, don’t go to food as your first solution. 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.
  • Seek the company of people who make you feel good and help you overcome stress and negative emotions.
  • If a craving hits, try to put it off for five minutes or more and see if it goes away. Ask yourself during your “time out” how you are feeling or what you might need.

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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