Stress Eating: Why it Happens & How to Stop

stress eating tips

Hitting the pantry more often than normal these days?

If so, take solace in the fact that you’re definitely not alone. AND you’re completely (biologically) normal. Stress, anxiety, boredom, grief, and procrastination are just a few of the many reasons that we eat when we’re not physically hungry. Here are some practical tools to navigate emotional eating with more intention and ease. 

This post is not about telling you that emotional eating is ‘wrong’. As with anything, you decide what’s best for you. If this is a behavior you’re engaging in and it’s not serving you, here’s a compilation of tips that are supporting me and that I hope will also serve you. 

Why do we stress eat?

It’s not that you just ‘have no will power’. The fact is, we’re biologically wired to eat more when we’re under emotional duress. 

This article cites three science-backed reasons that underlie stress eating. To summarize, the first reason is that stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (aka the fight or flight response). When the SNS is activated, we reach for quick hits of glucose (ie. sugary, snacky foods). The second reason is that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, doesn’t work as efficiently during stress. We’re, therefore, less able to resist the call of the pantry. The third reason we eat under stress is because when our brain senses danger, the threat response system within our brains is activated. Sugary and fatty foods can dampen this response and temporarily make us feel comforted. 

Fortunately, we can use the following strategies to coax the nervous systems back into parasympathetic (aka rest and digest) mode, so that we can make better decisions. Notice that these tactics are focused on reducing stress as opposed to taking a food-focused. This is a root cause approach. Go for the cause (stress), not the symptoms (overeating, snacking, emotional eating). These are taken directly from this post

Take a Breath

As soon as you find yourself with a craving, simply stop and take a few breaths:

  • Sit or lay comfortably with your back straight.
  • Place one hand over your stomach, just below the ribcage, and your other hand over your chest.
  • Inhale deeply for 3-8 seconds through the nostrils, directing all air to your belly. Only your stomach should lift or expand, not your chest.
  • Breathe out through your mouth for 3-8 seconds.
  • Repeat 3-10 times.

Get into Nature 

Just 20 minutes of exposure to nature has been shown to significantly lower stress hormone levels. Try to get out at least once a day, especially when you’re craving a snack. 

Engage in Meditation

Meditation being one of the most effective ways we can get ourselves out of stress mode and into a healthier physical state of being. 

Move Your Body to Reduce Food Cravings

Studies show that regular exercise helps reduce food cravings for up to a couple of hours even after you’ve finished exercising. It’s a bit of a double-whammy with exercise; it can help you reduce food cravings AND reduce your stress level with even short bouts of movement.

Additional tips to manage stress eating 

This post from Precision Nutrition offers the following 3 tips:

  1. Go ahead and overeat. The idea is to notice and track what is going on around the time you overeat (e.g. a long phone call with mom? A stressful work meeting? Going too long between meals? Alcohol?). This develops awareness around what triggers your overeating. It also removes the guilt and shame. If you’re “allowed” to overeat, it suddenly doesn’t feel so urgent, and perhaps you just have one or two cookies instead of the whole box. For more details on how to uncover your triggers, reference the full post. Once you’re aware of the trigger, decide what to do about it.
  1. Create a nourishment menu. This step provides tools to help when your triggers (see #1) are activated, and you want to break the trigger-response cycle. The idea is to ‘pick a thing (an action) to do before a thing (the stress eating). It’s called a nourishment menu because it contains options that nourish you in other ways, many of which we may be feeling deprived of right now (time in nature, movement, fresh air, sunlight, connection, etc.). Examples include: take 3 deep breaths, drink a big glass of water, mentally check for signs of physical hunger, play with your pet for 5 minutes, do some quick stretches, listen to a favorite song, go for a short walk, do some housework, journal). Think of non-food things that offer the sense of relief you were seeking from the food. To make it more likely you’ll do it, put your list on the fridge, and make your menu items as easy and quick to accomplish as possible.
  1. Take a self compassionate approach. This means an attitude of generosity, honesty, and kindness towards yourself. This tip helps you understand that your behavior around food doesn’t define you as a person. Right now, it makes sense that you may not be eating (or exercising, or working, or living) the way you normally do.

But feeling bad about being out of your routine could make stress eating even worse. So don’t beat yourself up. And don’t make “perfection” the goal. Self compassion is giving yourself a break, being honest and seeing the big picture, being kind to yourself. It’s not giving yourself a permanent ‘get out of jail free’ card, ignoring your problems, or letting yourself off the hook. 

And if you still decide to eat the snack, portion out the food you want into a bowl, sit down, and eat it mindfully.

A few more ideas

  • Guard your mind carefully. Reduce incoming stress-inducing media by turning off your TV, monitoring news consumption, and reducing social media use.
  • Start your day with a ritual and visualize yourself making health supporting choices. 
  • Eat whole meals which include fiber, fat, and protein to keep your blood sugar balance. Start the day with protein to avoid the tendency to overeat later. 
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand and easily accessible. If there’s a certain food you tend to overeat, don’t keep it in the house. 
  • Create a meal plan, including snacks, and stick to it.
  • Set up your work space away from the kitchen.

There’s a lot here. Pick one or two ideas to focus on for now. Keep what works and leave the rest. 

Rewiring our psychology around food is complex. It’s an ongoing practice. My own messed up relationship to food + my body goes way back, and yes, I still stress eat. But it helps to have tools. 

May we all be more gentle with ourselves.  

Related post:
Change your relationship to food & change everything. 

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