If what I’m hearing from people is any indication, stress eating is seriously on the rise these days.
“I’ve gotten to where I can’t end the day without some chocolate now.”
“I went all in on a pizza last night and today I’m bloated, but it felt like exactly what I needed at the time.”
“’Safe at home’ might as well be called ‘stay home and eat carbs’ – that’s what’s happening in my house!”
And of course… “My wine habit is up for sure – at least a glass every night. Yikes!”
If these comments sound like you, you’re definitely not alone.
Today, we are going to explore the science behind stress eating and what you can do – starting today – to put and end to your stress eating habits.
Why Do We Stress Eat?
You might think of reaching for comfort foods as a modern-day phenomenon, but actually, it has deep roots. Our ancient ancestors laid the foundation for our stress eating habits!
Our bodies respond to stress by thinking we need to store up a lot of energy. And just in case we need to fight a saber-tooth tiger, the energy we crave comes in the form of fast-burning sugar and carbs.
Once we eat sugar and carbs, we do feel more relaxed. Stress hormones decrease, and feel-good hormones increase. And that’s often why comfort eating also means OVEREATING.
That’s why it’s SO hard to stop stress eating. But the problem is what happens next.
Those fast-burning sugar and carbs stick fast to your mid-section, just in case your hunter/gatherer ancestors went without food. At the same time, those foods slow down your digestion and clog you up with acid.
So while eating junk might make you feel good right away, it doesn’t take very long before you feel awful. And certainly, long term it’s not good for your physical or mental health.
That can create a vicious cycle where you feel bad, so you eat more bad foods. The more junk you eat, the more junk you will want to eat!
So how do you break this cycle?
Well the good news is that the opposite of what I just wrote is also true. The more healthy foods you eat, the more healthy foods you will want to eat! It’s a vicious cycle on one hand and a healthy cycle on the other hand – and you get to choose which hand you eat from.
How to Break the Stress Eating Habit
Step 1. Know What Triggers You
Is it a certain time of the day that feels particularly stressful? Or is it your way to unwind at the end of a hard day? It also might be that your stress eating is rebellious – eating to experience freedom or control when you lack those feelings in other areas.
By being honest with yourself about what triggers you, you can begin to spot patterns and interrupt them in order to change bad habits. It might help to keep a food diary of what you eat and how you feel.
It might help to do a “pattern interrupt” as my mentor Tony Robbins calls it, where you change things up completely so you don’t feel the trigger for stress eating. If you normally stress eat at the end of the day while you watch TV, don’t even turn on the television. Take a walk or do a puzzle instead.
Another thing to know about yourself – whether you do better giving it up cold turkey, or like me, you’re more of a “moderation, not deprivation” guy or gal. If you can’t stand the thought of giving up your comfort food guilty pleasure, make rules for yourself to only indulge on rare occasions.
Step 2. Trick Your Body
You now know that stress hormones and feel-good hormones are part of the reason why you crave sugar and carbs when you’re anxious or afraid. Well you can use that information to your advantage and give your body what it wants – in a healthy form. When you’re feeling stressed, eat more:
- Foods high in natural fiber – these are carbs too but complex carbs that keep you energized longer – dark, leafy greens like watercress, kale, and spinach, Swiss chard, avocados, artichokes, peas, okra, squash, Brussels sprouts, and quinoa.
- Protein-rich plants to keep you feeling fuller longer – lentils, chickpeas, adzuki beans, lima beans, raw almonds and cashews, as well as the occasional healthy animal protein like wild-caught salmon.
- Foods rich in healthy fats that will calm your brain –coconuts, avocados, hemp flax, and chia seeds, and fatty, low-mercury fish.
Step 3. Manage the Stress
Once you know what triggers your stress response and you begin eating what your body really craves, you can work to address the roots of your stress. Seek support from a professional, start journaling or find another creative outlet, talk to a friend, use meditation or deep breathing, and remember to get daily exercise.
Next, remove the temptations of stress eating. Toss the snacks, sugar, and bottles of wine that you reach for so they aren’t even in your kitchen. Replace them with nutrient-rich choices like cacao nibs, herbal teas, and raw nuts.
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