Stress is one of the most common causes of overeating and weight gain.
Can you relate? Your day gets busy, life feels overwhelming, and you find yourself (without much thought) inhaling some junk food because you think it’s going to make you feel better – and it does for about a minute. Maybe you turn to sugary food to “boost energy” or to help you deal with your feelings of anxiety, frustration, anger, or sadness. All the while you’re gaining weight and feeling worse instead of better.
As much as you want to stop stress eating, it’s hard to control because (ironically) it happens when you’re stressed. It’s not enough to just tell yourself not to do it. In fact, trying NOT to stress eat can actually intensify stress and make you want to eat more. It is possible however, to break this stress eating cycle.
A plan to successfully control stress eating is not just about food. In fact, it doesn’t start with food at all. A few non-food strategies and a bit of practice can make a huge difference. It takes persistence and creative ways to calm and successfully soothe yourself. The goal is to rewire your brain to identify certain non-eating behaviors as comforting, and to use those behaviors when things start to feel stressful.
These three stress busting strategies can help you to calm down and take control.
STRATEGY 1: Be aware and take care
Much of stress eating is so unconscious that it happens automatically, and you may not even realize it. Before you can make changes in your behavior, you need to be aware of what you are doing. Keeping a journal can help. Write down where and when you stress eat. Was it during work or late at night when you were alone? Do you notice any patterns? Try to determine whether or not you were physically hungry. At first you may be journaling after the fact, but eventually your awareness will increase, and you will catch yourself before you stress eat. This is the goal; and then you can decide to NOT stress eat and do something else to cope.
STRATEGY 2: Stop – N – Swap
If you remove stress eating from your life, you need to replace it with something. Write down a concrete list of all the healthy swaps that can get you through your day. Here a few simple examples.
- Change your routine. If you have stress-eating rituals that have become bad habits, try something different. For example, if you’re in the habit of stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts on the drive home from your stressful job to grab a coffee and always end up getting a donut, change up that routine. Bring a healthy snack to eat on the drive home and take a different route to avoid the Dunkin’ Donuts.
- Stretch and move. Stress builds up in our body and then creates more stress and discomfort. If you can’t change the external circumstance at the moment, you can still be kind to yourself and stretch out your neck or your back. Stand up, move around, and go for a walk if possible. Try to create comfort in your body in ways that don’t involve eating.
- Breathe deep. It’s physically impossible to become more stressed and more relaxed at the same time. When you start relaxing – even just a bit – you reverse the cycle of growing more and more stressed or anxious. Focus on your breath for just a minute or put your hand on your abdomen and breathe. Try a quick breathing exercise. Slowing down your breathing can trick your body into thinking you are going to sleep, which in turn relaxes you. Close your eyes. Stare at the blackness of your eyelids. Slowly breathe in and out. Count each time you inhale and exhale. Continue until you get to 10.
- Sleep. Stress is exhausting and adequate sleep is necessary to recover. Aim for at least 7½ hours of sleep a night. You’ll be more productive and better able to focus, and less likely to have cravings. Make sleep a priority.
- Make a list. Instead of stress eating, boost your effectiveness with a plan. Write down three things you want to accomplish for the day and one nurturing thing you will do for yourself.
STRATEGY 3: Practice Yourself Calm
In addition to the strategies mentioned above, there are many other ways to calm yourself without eating such as journaling, meditation, connecting with others, distraction, guided imagery, aromatherapy and other ways to pamper your senses. Try out these techniques when you aren’t craving food, so you know exactly what to do before you really need them.
FOODS THAT HELP REDUCE STRESS
There are certain foods that have specific nutrients that can have a calming effect on the body.
Tea. Green, black, and white teas are packed with flavonoids; natural antioxidants that may help blood vessels relax and lower blood pressure. If you are sensitive to caffeine, go for decaffeinated varieties. And be sure not to add sugar or an artificial sweetener to your tea. Dark chocolate, red peppers, citrus fruits and berries are other flavonoid-rich foods.
Dark green vegetables. Veggies such as broccoli, spinach, kale and other greens are high in B vitamins, which can help fight anxiety. Research suggests people with low levels of these vitamins are more likely to have depression than those with normal levels.
Nuts. Almonds and cashews are rich sources of magnesium, a mineral involved in production of serotonin – a chemical produced by the body to help it relax. Like dark green veggies, nuts are high in B vitamins. They are also packed with healthy fat and some protein to reduce cravings and keep hunger at bay.
Lorraine Matthews-Antosiewicz, MS, RD
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