Tips To Avoid Stress-Eating


What foods do you reach for when you are stressed?  Most likely, carrot sticks won’t make the list. Stressors, such as a crying baby, a looming deadline or financial problems narrow our focus so that we cannot clearly see the bigger picture. Stress hampers our ability to make smart decisions, including decisions about what we will eat. 

Why fats and sugars are so comforting

Real and perceived threats trigger a stress response. Your brain releases hormones that prime your body for action, be it to fight or flee from danger. To fuel this enhanced state of arousal, your body craves calorie-dense foods such as macaroni and cheese, chocolate bars and potato chips. Not bad choices if you need instant energy to escape the jaws of a Bengal tiger. However, if your stressors are unpaid bills, a mile-long to-do list or an annoying co-worker, a crème-filled doughnut may briefly ease your stress, but an hour later your mood will crash and, eventually, you will be wearing that doughnut around your waist.

Begin by managing your stress

You can’t eliminate stress from your life, and you really don’t want to. The stress response is part of your physiology, and allows you to respond quickly to danger. You need it to react quickly when maneuvering though heavy traffic or to keep you alert as a project deadline approaches. However, much of our stress is self-created and serves no purpose. Continually replaying past events or possible futures in your mind creates clutter that strains your mental resources. Worrying about too many things at one time is exhausting and takes you away from the present moment where your life exists.

Still your harried mind by attending to your body

  • Practice deep breathing exercises — Deep, abdominal breathing counters the stress response with the relaxation response. Practice three or four times a day to help you refocus your energy with peace and purpose.
  • Take a walk around the block — Physical activity bumps up your brain’s production of endorphins, the feel good neurotransmitters. It also refocuses your mind outwardly, away from the internal nagging of stressors. Regular exercise will improve your general health and give you a greater sense of well-being, making you less likely to seek well-being in a package of cookies.
  • Don’t short yourself on sleep — While you sleep, your brain is busy processing everything you’ve experienced during your waking hours. Think of it as tidy-up time. Without enough sleep, your mind is cluttered and confused. Studies back this up finding sleep deprivation leads to greater stress, anxiety and anger.

Take a proactive approach to your eating

  • Keep a food journal — Keep track of what you eat, making note of the time and your mood. You will begin to see patterns emerge. Maybe mid-afternoon is when you reach for sugary snacks for a quick pick-up; perhaps you habitually open a bag of chips while watching TV late at night. Understanding your habits is the first step in changing them.
  • HALT — This acronym, used by Alcoholics Anonymous, stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. When you find yourself reaching for something to eat, halt. Why are you eating? Unless you really are hungry, you are using food to fill some unmet need. Are you angry, lonely, tired or stressed? Think of other, more appropriate ways, to deal with your need.
  • Plan meals and snacks to anticipate rough times — Once you’ve figured out your eating triggers, make a plan detailing what you will do rather than eat when cravings hit. If snacking in front of the TV is what you need to relax, try replacing your bag of chips with a bowl of grapes. Since you are most likely not eating out of hunger, it would be even better to replace eating with another activity, such as knitting, while you catch up on your favorite shows.
  • Mindful eating — Enjoy your meals. Take small bites and eat slowly. Notice the aroma, texture and flavor of your food. As you become more aware of what you eat, you’ll be better able to identify emotional eating. Make savoring your food a habit, and you will be less prone to “accidentally” eating an entire tub of ice cream.

If you find yourself in the midst of a stress-induced eating binge, don’t make the “what the hell” mistake.  It’s easy to say, “I’ve already blown it — what the hell, might as well eat the whole thing.” The more you overeat, the worse you will feel. You know this. Listen to your rational mind and ask, “Why am I doing this?” Throw the cookies, pizza, ice cream, potato chips or whatever has pulled you off track into the trash, and be proud you have the control to do what is best for yourself.