How to Stop Stress Eating: 5 Methods
We’ve all been there. In 2017, American Psychological Association (APA) found that politics, violence, crime, work, deadlines, and money were major causes of stress for most Americans. Since then, we've been hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, another shared cause of significant stress.
Maybe you’re going through a major life change or feeling like you need a major life change. Wherever your stress may stem from, it can be overwhelming. The first step to managing stress is to evaluate your coping mechanisms.
Coping mechanisms vary from person to person, as does stress. It’s important to reflect on your personal experience with stress to see which healthy coping mechanisms you currently possess and which unhealthy mechanisms you can improve on.
What Are Coping Mechanisms?
Coping mechanisms are the way we choose to handle feelings of stress that can be either healthy or unhealthy. Stress challenges us to adapt, change and can oftentimes leave us feeling out of control.
Healthy coping mechanisms are stress relievers that can bring us back to a balanced routine, without any negative consequences. Some examples of coping mechanisms include:
Healthy Coping Mechanisms:
- Practicing Deep Breathing techniques.
- Seeking help from a friend or mental health professional.
- Exercise regularly.
- Making time for your favorite hobby, like knitting.
- Prioritizing your workload.
- Maintain emotionally supportive relationships.
- Healthy Eating.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms:
- Isolating oneself.
- Aggression/anger towards others.
- Drug/alcohol use.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Stress eating.
What Is Stress Eating?
One of the most common unhealthy coping mechanisms is stress eating. Stress or emotional eating is a way to subside negative emotions and replace them with temporary feelings of comfort or satisfaction.
Stress increases the body’s cortisol (stress hormone) level which increases food consumption and fat storage. It also increases your hunger hormones like ghrelin, which increases your appetite and cravings for specific tastes and textures.
Prolonged elevation of cortisol oftentimes leads to weight gain, which can cause more long-term stress.
How Can I Stop Stress Eating?
The good news is, stress cravings are manageable and even preventable. Emotional hunger can be managed in a multitude of ways, like cleaning out your pantry, eating healthier snacks, exercising, staying hydrated, and talking to your support network.
Clean out your Pantry
First and foremost, clear out your pantry.
Having high-sugar, high-cholesterol, high-fat comfort foods in the house will only increase your likelihood of stress eating. When these items are disposed of, so is the opportunity to eat foods that contribute to long-term stress.
Organizing and inventorying your refrigerator and pantry will also serve as a fresh start. You will then have space in your cabinets to fill with nutritious, healthy foods.
After clearing out your pantry, a trip to the grocery store is in order! Be sure to make a list of healthy foods and snacks that you can keep in the kitchen for when you’re tempted to snack.
Some examples of healthy snacks would be baby carrots in ranch dressing, cucumbers, whole grain granola bars, or hard-boiled eggs. You can also incorporate sugar-free protein powders into your shopping list, for a flavorful boost of energy and nutrition. There are plenty of inventive recipes online to make healthy snacking tasty, nutritious, and even fun!
Eat Healthy Snacks
A simple way to cut back on unhealthy stress eating is to replace unhealthy eating habits and junk food with nutritious foods, mindful eating, and healthy habits. Nutrition has a major impact on mental health.
Instead of eating a bag of chips, try snacking on brain foods such as nuts and seeds, fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables like spinach, tuna, and beans.
Replace potato chips with healthy fats like avocados or carbs like berries. Protein and fiber are also more filling than junk food or simple carbs, so they'll fill your stomach more quickly than chocolate cookies or processed snacks.
When you have the urge to snack, chop up some fresh strawberries or enjoy a fresh homemade green power smoothie. Nutritious meals will leave you feeling energized, refreshed and motivated to continue a healthy diet.
You should also cut down on distracted eating if you know that your eating behavior is a result of high stress levels, chronic stress, or feelings of guilt, sadness, or loneliness.
Take a deep breath before eating to slow down your thoughts, and put your food down in between each bite. Savor the taste and feeling of your food, and focus on the experience of eating. By eating while you're not distracted, you'll consume fewer calories because you won't accidentally be overfilling yourself.
Exercise and Stay Hydrated
Individuals who partake in daily exercise experience a higher quality of sleep and overall better physical health.
While the physical benefits of exercise are usually acknowledged, there are many mental health benefits to exercise. Higher self-esteem, increased energy, and improved memory and thinking are some of the side effects to daily exercise.
It has been found that running for fifteen minutes a day or walking for an hour a day can reduce the risk of mental health symptoms by 26%. When stress overwhelms your body and mind, exercise provides a break in thinking and can provide feelings of energy and positivity.
During your daily activity be sure to stay hydrated! Drinking water is an effective way to reduce stress eating. Drinking water can improve energy levels, focus and even mood.
Know your Support Network
We all need someone on our side! If you’re going through a stressful period of time, it’s important to know who your biggest supporters are.
A support network of friends, family and even mental health professionals can help keep you on track and hold you accountable for your actions. Having a friend to call for a walk or a quick drive through town while you’re fighting the urge to stress eat can be a helpful distraction.
Because stress eating is an attempt to fill emotional needs like boredom, sadness, shame, or loneliness and not your physical hunger, talking with friends, family or a trusted mental health professional can be helpful in managing your cravings.
A mental health professional such as a therapist can provide greater depth into your triggers and emotions that cause stress eating, as well as provide you with relaxation techniques, meditations, and other coping skills that can replace stress eating.
Creating a calendar of ‘appointments’ with your therapist, friends, or family for regular walks, healthy lunches, or fun activities can be a great way to schedule time out of the house. These social interactions can also serve as exceptional stress relief due to the break in time spent thinking negatively.
You Are in Control
Whether it's due to the coronavirus pandemic or a deadline at work, we all experience stress from time to time.
As mentioned earlier, stress can oftentimes leave us feeling unraveled and out of control. The most important aspect of coping with stress is reminding yourself that you are in control. Stress and coping mechanisms, healthy or unhealthy, do not define who you are.
You define who you are. If you are feeling controlled by your stress, remind yourself that you can make life changing decisions.
Eliminating stress eating from your coping mechanism toolbox is possible. Conscious, intentional choices such as snacking healthy, getting regular exercise, and staying hydrated are all effective coping skills to break a stress eating habit. Having a support network of friends and family to confide in when you’re feeling stressed is also a healthy way to decrease stress eating.
Finally, if you feel the urge to stress eat, remind yourself that stress does not control you. You do.
BioHealth Nutrition cares about your wellness, and we understand that food should be fuel for your body and your mind.
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Making healthy choices during periods of stress will rid you of stress quicker and set you up for success when you encounter stress in the future.