Six Steps to Conquer Stress Eating

We are all certainly under a lot of stress these days; job insecurity, working from home, social-distancing and the fear of contracting the virus have turned our lives upside down.

Managing stress is an important part of overall health. Stress is associated with a numerous health issues and many chronic illnesses. In our daily lives, learning to manage stress allows us to stay positive, be productive and find joy in our day to day living.

Diseases whose development has been linked to both stress and inflammation include cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders. We cannot always control what is going on around us, but we can learn to control our responses to what ever is happening. (source)

There are many ways people cope with stress. Some are healthy, some are not. Healthy coping techniques include journaling, walking, talking to a friend, enjoying a hobby and meditating. Of course, there are many other positive ways to deal with stress. What works for one person may not work for another. Take some time to think about what you could do that removes the negative thought pattern for awhile, is something you enjoy and positively impacts your life. Then make time in your life to do that. Even 15 minutes per day can benefit your physical and mental health.

Negative responses to stress, including emotional eating, reliance on drugs or alcohol to cope and withdrawal only contribute to poor health and are often a source of added stress. Stress eaters often use food to deal with a variety of negative emotions including sadness, anger and guilt. But after the trip to the refrigerator, the emotion is still there. And sometimes that emotion is strengthened. A stressful situation triggers the "need" to eat, which leads to a feeling of guilt or unhappiness which adds more stress. . . and so the cycle continues.

When food becomes the source of comfort to reduce stress or to improve mood, that is stress eating (aka emotional eating). When grabbing something from the refrigerator becomes your coping mechanism, you need to discover healthier ways to deal with your emotions.

Food is fuel, it's not your friend and it certainly is not your solution to stress. No matter how much you eat, that source of stress is still there. So what do you do?

Ideally, ridding yourself of the source of stress would be your primary goal. Unfortunately, we often have little control over all of the sources of stress in our lives. Angry bosses, illnesses in your family, commuters with road rage and this virus are situations we really cannot control. But, we can control our response to them.

Recognizing and naming the negative feeling/emotion is necessary before you can begin to develop a positive response pattern. Are you angry, sad, afraid or simply bored? Once you figure out what you are feeling, you can take steps to deal with that feeling/emotion. For instance, if you are sad you might call a friend, watch a comedy, or just let yourself have a good cry. Engaging your mind in a crossword puzzle or a good book could be the perfect boredom buster.

Pay attention to triggers and routines. Is there a situation that consistently prompts you to turn to food? Have you fallen into the routine of eating after (fill in the blank) even though you are not really hungry? Maybe you have developed a habit of grabbing something to eat after you check your morning emails. Check yourself - are you really hungry or is this just your pattern?

Take some time to brainstorm on what you could do to deal with your emotions rather than eat. Going for a walk or just sitting outside can be calming when you are feeling overwhelmed.

Learn to recognize the difference between true hunger and an emotional response. How long has it been since you last had something to eat? Is your stomach growling?

A hunger scale can help you learn how to tell the difference between true, physical hunger and hunger that's really just in your head. Psychological hunger is a desire to eat that is caused by emotions, like stress, boredom, sadness, or happiness. When you feel hungry even though you recently ate, check to see if what you're feeling is really a craving brought on by something psychological. When you start feeling like you want something to eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being starving and 10 being so full you feel sick. A rating of 5 or 6 means you're comfortable—neither too hungry nor too full. (source)

  • 1—Starving, weak, dizzy

  • 2—Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling

  • 3—Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little

  • 4—Starting to feel a little hungry

  • 5—Satisfied, neither hungry nor full

  • 6—A little full, pleasantly full

  • 7—A little uncomfortable

  • 8—Feeling stuffed

  • 9—Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts

  • 10—So full you feel sick

As you learn to recognize your emotional hunger, choose a few responses from your brainstorming list that you will use in place of eating. Maybe you notice that by 10:00 a.m you are feeling quite overwhelmed by all of the work you need to accomplish before the end of the work day. A cup of green tea and a 5 minute break to sit outside will clear your mind and boost your energy. You get back to your desk revitalized, focused and better able to deal with what comes.

I know, you might be reading this and think "I have tried all of that before". Well, did you try and give up too quickly because it was hard to do? Or did you try one way and when that didn't work, you just gave up rather than exploring another option? Making a change is difficult - it requires action, persistence and the determination to move forward even after a setback. Stop making excuses and start making the changes.

Lasting positive changes often occur slowly - they take work and seldom happen overnight. You will make mistakes, revert back to bad habits and feel like you just want to give up. Stick with it. You can do it and it will happen. It might not be easy, but it will be worth it.

Along the way, don't forget to recognize your successes and reward yourself a bit. We often get caught up in what we have done wrong or how we have "failed" and forget to celebrate our successes and the things we do well. Small rewards and positive reflection keep you on track for success. Just remember, food is not a reward. Some fresh flowers in a vase at your desk, a manicure or some quiet time watching the sunset serve as reminders of your hard work and the positive steps you have taken to take better are of yourself.

Don't wait and hope it will change? It won't. It is a pattern that you need to actively work on to change. Food is your fuel to energize and heal your body. Food is not your friend, it is not your reward and it certainly is not your therapist. Uncover your relationship with food, choose some positive actions that can replace emotional eating and implement those behaviors into your daily routine. You cannot control everything that is happening around you, but you can control the actions you take to deal with those things.

Be well, Be Strong, Stay Healthy!

Thanks for reading!

I hope you are staying well through this tough time. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about health and nutrition. I will do my best to help!

Peace, love and good health to all!

~ Cindi


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