We’ve all been there — work is piling up, kids won’t stop whining, the boss is giving you a hard time, a family member gets sick, the list goes on. You immediately reach for the chocolate (or bag of chips). Cue feelings of guilt, being overwhelmed and frustration for lacking willpower.
But what if I told you that reaching for food was actually a normal response?
That it’s actually your biology working. If this sounds crazy, stay with me.
Food provides comfort. In fact, research shows that foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat lead to the release of both serotonin and dopamine, which make you feel good. So when you’re stressed and want to feel better — it’s a natural response to want to eat! That said, if you eat every time you’re stressed, that could lead to a lot of unnecessary eating and ultimately eating more than your body needs, which could lead to weight gain.
If you find yourself heading for the pantry every time life gets stressful, try these 5 tips to reel things in a bit.
- Eat enough throughout the day. If you’re not well nourished, your brain won’t have enough energy to process and handle the stress coming at you, which makes it harder to stop reaching for food. Plus, undereating is a stress on your body itself, so you’re fighting against a lot if you’re trying not to eat.
Everybody’s needs are different, but if you’re skipping meals, going more than 4-5 hours between meals/snacks, or restricting foods or food groups unnecessarily, then you probably aren’t eating enough. Keep healthy, balanced snacks on hand like BeBOLD bars to fill gaps in between meals.
- Eat well balanced meals (at every meal). This means including a source of protein (fish, poultry, meat, soy foods, beans, legumes), fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans) and fat (olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butter, seeds) at your meals. This combination helps balance your blood sugar, which can help your brain function optimally and help you manage your emotions.
- Prioritize basic self care. Taking care of yourself helps you feel more centered and ready to take on stress. Basic self care includes getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night, moving your body regularly, getting fresh air, and eating nourishing food. It’s also important to make time for yourself to do things you enjoy and that help you feel great. Say to yourself, “I know there is a lot happening right now, but I am bound and determined to come out of this having accomplished a walk each day (or some goal that’s good for you) added into the mix of hectic scenarios.
- Know your triggers. When you’re aware of the things that bring you stress, you’re better able to prepare for them and have a plan to bust that stress when it comes your way (because we can’t avoid stress completely).
- Create a stress busting toolkit. Rather than focusing on trying to not eat, focus on what you can do instead. It’s helpful to have a few different actions to take so you have a choice. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Take 10 deep breaths
- Try a short 3-5 minute meditation on a meditation app like Headspace or Calm.
- Step outside for 5-10 minutes for fresh air
- Go for a walk
- Put on music and dance
- Call or text a friend or family member
- Journal, color, or draw
Lastly, if you do find yourself reaching for a box of cookies, take a pause and do your best to eat them mindfully, so you only eat a few instead of the whole box. For example, take out a few cookies and make it special, put some whipped cream on top, arrange them on a dessert plate . These behaviors will set boundaries around portion control so you can go ahead and eat them without guilt. If you are eating it, ENJOY IT! And remember, breaking the habit of stress eating can take time and practice, so keep at it.
Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and the owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition, a virtual private practice and nutrition communications consulting business in the suburbs of Boston. She empowers busy women to ditch diets and learn to eat to feel their best without the stress.