Stress eating, or emotional eating, is pretty much what it sounds like — it’s when you eat in order to escape whatever bad feelings you’re experiencing, in the hope that food will make you feel better.
Stress and boredom can trigger emotional eating, particularly when you’re stuck at home and surrounded by food all day long. Those high-calorie comfort foods can stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, but also make us want to keep eating. In a vicious cycle, overeating can lead to weight gain — increasing stress and which, in turn, can lead to more overeating.
How to Recognize Stress Eating Cues.
If you find your eating habits change when you have more stress in your life – if you’re spending more time hanging out in front of your refrigerator or junk-food drawer, you might be stress eating. Other signs to be aware of include eating when you are not hungry or when you’re full, eating to avoid dealing with a stressful situation, eating to soothe your feelings, or using food as a reward.
What’s the Best Way to Prevent Stress Eating?
The most important thing everyone should be doing right now is taking the best possible care of themselves, and that involves practicing good eating habits to keep yourself healthy. Here’s my advice on how to stop emotional eating.
Own up to your feelings.
You know that emotions are the trigger for your stress eating, so why not acknowledge them? It’s OK to feel mad, lonely, or bored sometimes. The feelings may be unpleasant, but they’re not dangerous, and you don’t always need to “fix” them. Let your emotions come and go without judging them.
Find alternatives to eating.
A brisk walk or a cup of herbal tea might work instead. If you feel the need to eat, try hard crunchy foods; they help relieve stress by putting tight jaw muscles to work. Try snacking on a handful of almonds, soy nuts, or baby carrots.
Practice mindful eating.
When you eat mindfully, you try to become more aware of your internal signals of hunger and fullness. You also become more in tune with what triggers you to eat in the first place. Mindful eating can help you avoid overeating and allow you to enjoy your food more—even when you eat less. You can also learn to pay more attention to what you’re choosing to put into your body.
Remember, this is not the time to restrict your intake, but a time to focus on eating the most nutrient-dense foods you can in order to optimize nutrition to support a healthy immune system. This pandemic has undoubtedly added stress to all of our lives but learning how you cope with it can make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.
Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND is the senior director for Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition.