We’ve all been there: a long day at the office turns into a (few) servings of take-out at home, while our carefully prepared healthy dinner sits in the fridge. A stressful email turns into a trip to the vending machine for some candy while we sort everything out. A lingering to-do list turns into a few laps to the kitchen while we procrastinate diving in. Stress eating is something that affects most people, if not everyone, from time to time. And while there is no stress eating cure persay, there is a way to make food less of a crutch when stressed and better get at the root cause of whatever is making those damn chips so enticing.
Recognize that it’s simply your body trying to reduce stress levels.
Stress eating often has a stigma around it, as if someone can’t control their emotions and therefore turns to food instead. But I would like to offer a new perspective: that stress eating is actually a very intelligent, purposefully designed response by the body to reduce stress and manage emotions that are too powerful for it. Think about it this way: stress takes a toll on everything from DNA to inflammation, our cardiovascular system, blood sugar, hormones and (yep) weightloss.
Eating a large amount of food at once forces a relaxation response, because to digest optimally, bodies have to shift out of fight-or-flight mode and into the more relaxed parasympathetic state. Not to mention, eating certain foods switches on feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which chemically, physically make us feel good. Knowing this can help you shift out of thinking why can’t I stop eating this to understanding it’s simply a mechanism by your body to bring stress down back to safe levels.
As such, approach it not from limiting food but limiting stressors.
So then, your challenge is not as much around reducing stress eating, but reducing stress in the first place. Did you know that it’s physically impossible for a binge to occur when the body is in a relaxed state? So if you can’t change the desire to eat, try coming in the back door by changing the level of stress. That will, in turn, impact the urge to eat in the first place. Think about where stress eating occurs most often and what you can do to reduce stress in those moments.
Be wary of what sounds good in theory… but doesn’t actually reduce stress.
Word to the wise, as this is where I see most approaches go wrong, choose something that ACTUALLY helps. So often, I see people do something that sounds good in theory for removing stress. Things like going for a walk, making some tea, or having a glass of water instead. Those are all viable options but it depends on the person. If those aren’t actually feasible for you in the moment — say you can’t just take off at work or you actually hate the taste of tea — then choose something that DOES actually help bring down your stress levels. Maybe it’s watching 5 minutes of cat videos or bloopers online. Checking out for a few minutes and swiping right on Tinder. Taking six deep breaths, screaming into a pillow, closing the door and punching into the air, or turning up the music and dancing to completely interrupt whatever stress train you’re on.
Watch for stress-causing foods.
I’m a big believer of moderation, because restriction almost always leads to the very binge behaviors people are trying to avoid. However, if you’re constantly feeling hyper-stressed, it may be worth looking at what you’re eating that could be contributing. Coffee (gotta love it) and other caffeinated beverages like soda, hot chocolate, and some teas DO increase cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body and amp people up. Same goes for highly sugary foods.
It’s not a matter of cutting these out completely necessarily; the dose makes the poison. So just be aware if you’re overloading in the morning, which may be setting you up for irritability and agitation later on.
Look for the lesson.
I personally believe that stress eating (as with all unhealthy patterns surrounding food… or anything else in life) has a wisdom to it. That there is so much power behind an explosion of overeating, and that same power can be redirected to growth, healing and transformation. That food challenges are things that life uses to get our attention, because nothing often captures our attention like an interruption to our usual health or weight. That how we do one thing in life is often how we do other things, and looking at how we’re acting with food can be a powerful mirror for what other areas of our life are calling our attention. So when in doubt, consider what is feeling unresolved in your life, and what steps you could take to help that. You just might find your food challenges morph right along with it.
Are you a stress eater? What helps you most?