Stress eating is a coping mechanism, a response to internal or external problems; the response is to eat food to feel better. We all love to eat. Some cultures say that the biggest part of the eating experience is savoring each bite. How many people actually do that? Instead of a civilized meal, it can be a feeding frenzy when we are beset by problems and food seems like the only outlet. Most people don’t even know that they are doing it and are helpless to know how to stop. The waistline will pay the price unless new ways to deal with stress are found.
Stress Eating: What is it?
Your mother-in-law is visiting; the boss is hounding you. Sound familiar? But there is science behind why we eat when things are going wrong. Hormones: secreted by glands to perform specific functions in the body. During stress, a hormone (cortisol) is secreted causing you to crave sugary snacks. These foods cause a calming effect, much like when endorphins are released after an exercise session. Endorphins are also released here. Serotonin (a brain neurotransmitter) rise to calm you and “turn off” the stress trigger that got the cortisol going in the first place.
Prolonged stress cycles are not good for the body. Weight can shoot up, and your risk of other conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and stroke can increase. It is a vicious cycle. Don’t let it control you.
STRATEGIES TO AVOID STRESS EATING
Admitting you are an emotional eater takes courage. Some people will hide it from others but that won’t solve the problem. Build a support system: family, friends and professionals who will help you discover the root of your stress.
Therapists can help you to uncover the “emotional triggers” that cause stress. Once you know what your triggers are, then you are armed with knowledge that you didn’t have before. Now, you can head them off with a little help. Learn to handle stress constructively. Cognitive behavior therapy teach you change your way of thinking by recognizing when a button has been pushed so that you can head it off with sound judgment.
When we are in a stressful situation, our emotional side kicks in; emotions aren’t always rational and can overrule the head. Flip it and let the brain do the talking. After a stressful day at work, you start to crave ice cream and debate whether to stop and get some. Ask yourself: Will eating ice cream solve your problem at work? The answer is “no.” Questioning your motives will start the wheels turning in your brain. Ask yourself what are some reasons why you shouldn’t do it? With your answers you can now see what a little brain power can do to help you avoid eating under stress.
Take a Deep Breath
When everyone is vying for your attention, your stress level can rise by the minute. Slow things down, take a deep breath. Simply breathe in deeply through your nose and blow it out slowly through your mouth. Close your eyes if that will help to focus and tune everyone out. It’s a way to get more oxygen to the brain. Increased oxygen in the body (especially the brain) increases focus and concentration, letting you to consider each wish one at a time with a clear head.
Most of us don’t like doing that on a good day but it can make a difference to your eating habits in times of stress. What you are trying to accomplish is a bait and switch, by distracting yourself from thinking about food long enough to calm down and flip-off the sugary craving switch without any damage being done.
Laugh a Lot
Laughter therapy has been documented as a way to help cope with stress and painful events in your life. Laughter can be artificial or brought about by humorous situations. You may not think that you can make yourself laugh on command. Try it. It starts deep in your belly and moves upward and the mind will conjure up happier times and humorous experiences to help that laugh to grow. Laughing has a calming effect on the brain. If humor on command is not for you, watch a funny movie. Before you reach for the junk food, watch that movie and you’ll have stopped thinking about food.
Have a Piece of Chocolate
You are thinking: This is the best one so far. Not so fast…we are not referring to the average candy bar. This is dark chocolate. By volume, dark chocolate contains the highest amount of cocoa from the cocoa bean and has many health benefits when eaten in moderation, like: easing depression, increasing antioxidants in the body and releasing those endorphins that make you feel good. Just like other foods, it is okay to eat in moderation.
Exercise also releases those same endorphins (like with food and laughter); and you are also getting the benefit of a stronger, leaner and fitter body in the process. Find an exercise that you like. Hop on your bicycle, walk a trail or shoot a few hoops. Each activity that you engage in takes your focus off of the stressor and places it somewhere more constructive. As with deep breathing, the increase in oxygen flow not only calms you but can actually help you to clear the fog of emotion and come up with constructive ways to solve your problem.
Sleep it Off
When stress is in the picture, you can get physically and mentally drained quite fast. It seems like you can’t take even one more thing happening to you. Stop the madness and find a quiet place to rest. The good news is that you can’t eat and sleep at the same time. Sleep is a time when the body can shut down and begin to repair itself. Even an hour nap has restorative properties that can give you a new outlook on an old situation.
Drink a Glass of Water
We seldom get the recommended daily requirement anyway so a chance to drink more water is good. Strategically consuming water is an old diet trick that still works. Before you eat, drink. Water fills up that empty space in your stomach giving you a feeling of fullness. It also buys you time to begin focusing on something else that is not food related. With the belly temporarily full, the urge to eat can pass by with no unhealthy consequences.
Listen to Music
It worked for Beauty and the Beast. Music is unique in that it can evoke emotional responses and memories. Have you ever just heard an old song and then you were magically transported to another time and place? That is what we are hoping for. Memories can imprint themselves in a strain of an instrumental ballad or the chorus of some familiar childhood tune. Your mind moves immediately from the stressor to something more pleasant. Taking a walk with your iPod does double duty to remove you from a stressful situation and the junk food.
In each of the strategies listed above, you are actively doing something to help change your situation. While you are concentrating on other things besides food, you can also actively change your thinking about the situation so that stress eating won’t be a factor in your life for very long.
Using simple, easy to implement strategies, you can get out ahead of your stress, recognize what situations cause you to reach for food and rationally decide to switch your focus elsewhere. This will be especially helpful around holiday time when food flows like water and so does the emotionally-charged situations. Live a little and laugh a lot to stay sane and away from the sweet snacks.