6 Tips To Navigate Stress Eating

6 Tips To Navigate Stress Eating

There’s nothing like a little uncertainty to launch us into a rollercoaster of emotions. One moment we’re feeling great and hopeful and the next we’ve lost our footing as events we looked forward to are changed, postponed, or canceled. 

The rhythm, schedule, and predictability of our lives have shifted a bit. Some people turn to food as a way to find solid ground and distract themselves from frustration and anger. Still others struggle to eat as their anxiety takes away their appetite and interest in food. 

In part 1 of our series we talked about emotional eating, now we will unpack ‘stress eating’ and 6 tips to navigate it. 

Raise Your Hand! 

Raise your hand if you sometimes find yourself impulsive around food. Eating to distract our minds is a natural and normal part of being human. We use food to connect to those around us – to celebrate and honor special occasions. Food is also part of our identity as humans – a symbol of where we come from and who we are. 

Therefore it’s not “bad” to eat emotionally. But it can be a problem when eating is the only tool used and when we’re unable to deal with difficult emotions

(Please note the answer is not to “just stop eating.” We need coping tools and we have to work at our own pace to confront difficult emotions. Taking away one coping tool often leads us to use another which may be more harmful than food. Please work with a mental health professional to understand what’s best for you).

Here are some tips to consider in addressing eating as a coping tool.

1 – Eat regularly.

The human body prefers balanced fuel (protein, starch, produce) every 3-5 hours. When we go longer than this without eating, hormones change in our body that increase our appetite, change our food preferences, and increase our impulsivity around food. If you go too long without eating, you’ll notice that vegetables are less appealing and instead, you’re drawn to high starch, high fat meals. This is the body’s normal response to being underfed – regardless of your body size. 

2 – Get Quality Sleep.

Our body and mind needs quality rest every night. When we don’t get the sleep we need, we are more impulsive, emotional, and reactive. We don’t think through things as clearly. Stress hormones increase our appetite and change our food preferences – we are wired to eat foods that provide higher energy in smaller servings like high fat, high sugar, and high starch foods. 

3 – Destress.

Reducing stress is easier said than done. Eating in response to stress is normal – it can be a helpful distraction that also grounds and calms. But it’s often not a “solution” to stress. Instead, activities like meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and exercise are all a few examples of activities that aren’t only a distraction but can actually reduce stress and anxiety without the need for food. 

4 – Satisfaction is not just chemistry.

We eat for a wide variety of human reasons, many of which have to do with our identity. Taste, texture, and temperature all play into the experience. When we eat what we are “supposed to” without consideration of what we “want” we often don’t feel satisfied. As a result, we continue to seek food, even after we feel full. Make sure that each meal, there is something there that you genuinely “want” – whether it’s a particular food or an element of the eating experience. Give yourself permission to enjoy it. 

5 – Careful with food rules.

People often create a laundry list about what they can and cannot eat. There are times this is necessary such as with food allergies. But other than that, there are no foods you clinically “cannot” have. For the majority of people, avoiding certain foods makes them feel obsessed and triggers rebellion, resulting in backlash eating.  Instead of obsessively avoiding certain foods, consider making peace with food. If this seems really hard, please consult with a registered dietitian or therapist specializing in eating disorders. 

6 – Stop beating yourself up.

The evening hours are often the hardest time and that has nothing to do with your “self control” or “will power.” Most people unknowingly create the perfect storm. They “eat well” all day (which usually means undereating) and are often surprised when they can’t stop eating at night. Not only are they underfed during the most active part of their day, they are trying to relax and decompress. And food often becomes part of that routine.

People begin to rationalize their behaviors with “I deserve to eat…” or “I was good all day…” or “I’ll be better tomorrow…” But these thoughts and beliefs often trigger us to engage in “last supper” eating – we eat large amounts with the “promise” of “fixing it” tomorrow by eating less or exercising more. But both of those “fixes” just cause the cycle to continue. Instead, forgive yourself and recognize what factors might have been at play. 

Nutrition is one piece of our fitness journey. See how schools use PLT4M to take a holistic approach to fitness and training.

Meet The Author: Rebecca Toutant, MA, RDN, LDN, CDE

Rebecca is a registered dietitian, personal trainer, and certified diabetes educator living and working in the Boston area.

Learn more about Rebecca and her background here: Fuel 4 Fitness – Rebecca Toutant

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