By Margaret Eich, MS, RDN
Imagine this scene. You worked late to finish a project at work. You ordered in some takeout while you were working, and now it’s finally time to go home. You’re exhausted and stressed. When you get home, you start raiding the fridge and cabinets for things to eat. You really aren’t hungry at all since you ate dinner at work, but you’re looking for comfort in the cupboards.
I think most people can relate to this, and I would venture to guess that most of us have been in this or a similar situation before. In times of stress, we tend to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Food is readily available and processed high sugar, high fat foods tend to give us a quick, but very short-lived, boost that often leaves us feeling worse or just simply that we haven’t acted in a way that is consistent with our long-term goals. No matter how good our intentions are, stress from a variety of sources can tend to deplete our resolve and decision-making capability. In addition to the daily stresses of work, family, and finances, struggling to conceive adds significant stress. People have varying degrees of stress or emotional eating, and these habits can take significant effort and time to change. Here are some tips to help get you started:
1) Check-in with yourself to determine whether you’re feeling physical “stomach” hunger or “head” hunger. Sometimes our head is telling us to eat even though our stomach isn’t hungry. Physical hunger comes on gradually and is felt in the stomach, and can be satisfied by most foods. In contrast “head hunger,” tends to come on quickly with very specific cravings. In addition with “head hunger,” it may not be very long since you last ate, and your stomach isn’t giving you any hunger cues.
2) Find alternative coping mechanisms to manage stress and find comfort other than eating. It’s helpful to make a list of things you can do when you want to eat when you’re stressed, but not actually hungry. There are a wide variety of options including ways to simply distract yourself or ways to actually help you unwind and manage your stress. Examples include: go for a walk, take deep breaths, meditate, do a few yoga poses, take a bath, call a friend, read a book or magazine, go outside and get some fresh air, etc. It’s helpful to make your own list of 5 things that you can do when you find yourself turning to food for comfort.
3) Be kind to yourself. In those moments when you eat something that you wish you hadn’t or feel uncomfortable because you ate too much, practice being kind to yourself instead of berating or beating yourself up or feeling guilty. As much as we think our guilt about our eating habits helps us do better next time, it actually holds us back and keeps up trapped in the cycle of stress eating. Instead, practice being kind to yourself as you would to a dear friend or family member. Then move on, and return to your healthy eating instead of letting it spiral out of control or deciding to restrict at the next meal. Restricting at the next meal only causes the cycle to repeat, as becoming overly hungry combined with stress makes it much more likely that we have a harder time making healthy choices moving forward.
Reducing stress and emotional eating takes time, so be patient with yourself. Know that progress often comes in fits and starts, and we often take 2 steps forward and 1 step back along the way.
Need to take a break? Try a four week nutrition, yoga, and coaching dextox program! Learn more about “Spring Cleaning: Using Nutrition and Yoga to Cleanse” and all our community events here .