Put down the cookies! Thirty nine percent of Americans are overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress. It is a response to a stress trigger, a coping mechanism to make you feel better. Stress eating is about feeding your emotions rather than feeding true hunger.
"When you're stressed, you release the hormone cortisol, which pushes you to crave fatty, sugary foods," says Susan Albers, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in food issues. Have you ever gotten to the bottom of a bag of potato chips after mindlessly eating the whole thing? Or a pint of ice cream? Pick your poison.
Stress eating leads to an unhealthy cycle. You experience dis-ease. Next, you overeat and/or eat unhealthy food. Then, you feel guilt, shame or disappointment in yourself for being out of control. You start to put on weight, feel even worse and your self-esteem starts to drop. So you reach for the high-calorie, sugary, high-fat foods. Ugh!
Stress eating happens when you are trying to escape your current situation. Instead of running, stop and take notice. Are you even hungry? Is it physical hunger? Or is it emotional?
Bring mindfulness to your meal. Take a moment to appreciate your food before you begin to eat it. Acknowledge how it will nourish you, in body and mind. Focus completely on your food. Notice the beauty of the colors and textures. How does it smell? Feel in your mouth? Taste?
Eat slowly and thoroughly chew your food. Try to recognize when your food is satiating your hunger and stop when you are full. Don’t keep eating just because more is on the plate. Getting more attuned to your body and mind will help you to conquer the stress-eating vicious cycle.
Foods that can help your stress levels
While typically, foods don’t cause stress (unless it is an allergen situation), they can cause physiological symptoms that make the problem worse. Foods with high sugar, fat, and salt content all contribute to problematic stress hormone levels. Caffeine and alcohol should also be limited.
On the other side of the coin, there are foods that can reduce your stress and help your mood improve. Certain foods increase levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical, and others naturally help to lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Keep the following list of stress-relieving foods handy when you're grocery shopping so you always have good options on hand:
- Spinach/ leafy greens
- Fermented Foods
- Dark chocolate
- Oatmeal (not instant)
- Sweet potatoes
Other ways to cope with stress
Minimizing your stressors and knowing your triggers will prevent some issues from the start. But self-care is critical. Sleeping at least seven hours per night, and exercising at least thirty minutes at moderate intensity five times a week will help you manage stress more effectively.
Try keeping a food diary; it can help you to focus more on what you're eating and help with weight management. When shopping, avoid buying high-sugar, fat-laden or salty foods so they're not even available when you're ready to eat. Also, if you prepare and store nutritious food and snacks ahead of time, you’ll be more apt to make healthier food choices.
Lastly, in addition to food, fill yourself up with activities that nourish, enrich and fulfill you. That will also keep your stress levels lower and increase your joy and fulfillment.
What are your favorite tips to beat stress eating?