We all do it. Eating when there’s no physical hunger, but instead to satisfy our emotional needs when life gets too overwhelming. That morning you woke up late, the kids made a mess in the kitchen, and you can’t find the keys. Or your boss is demanding an answer to a question he just asked 2 minutes ago, and you still have an entire in-box and paperwork to get to. The first thing you think of is:
“Where are the doughnuts left over from yesterday?”
“Can I sneak a candy bar and keep the kids from seeing me eat it?”
Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you’re at your weakest point emotionally. That’s when you may turn to food for comfort- consciously or unconsciously.
Do you eat when you’re stressed?
To comfort and soothe yourself with food, as a reward? Or when you’re angry, mad, sad, or bored? Even when you’re not hungry or even feel stuffed?
Is food nourishment for your body, or are you out of control around it?
Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. Major life events, or much more commonly, the hassles of daily life, can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and disrupt your weight-loss efforts. These triggers might include:
• Relationship conflicts
• Work stress
• Financial pressures
• Health problems
Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is often the same. The emotions return, and after eating or binging you then feel guilt about setting back your weight-loss goals. This can lead to an unhealthy and viscous cycle- your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad, and you overeat again.
The majority of us deal with stress and emotional eating on a daily basis. We need to learn strategies to calm and soothe ourselves. We need to learn awareness of when those negative feelings threaten to trigger emotional eating so we can take steps to stop it.
Here are some helpful tips :
Keep track of your emotional eating:
Try to connect patterns of how and when you stress eat by writing down how much, and when you ate, how you felt when you ate it, and how hungry you were. Over time you’ll recognize the triggers and be better prepared to use more appropriate options to release it.
Deal with your stressors:
When feeling stressed or out of control, try stress management techniques, such as deep breathing, which instantly reduces stress. Deep breathing resets brain patterns, increases heart rate, and lowers blood pressure. I teach patients who hyperventilate a simple and effective breathing technique. Hyperventilation decreases carbon dioxide levels that can lead to a full blown panic attack, causing physical manifestations of anxiety- shortness of breath, chest and stomach pains, numbness, and tingling. Take a few minutes and breath in to the count of 5, hold your breath to the count of 5, breathe out to the count of 5, hold your breath to the count of 5. This will reset your carbon dioxide levels and bring you back to balance. Unlike grabbing a paper bag to breath into, this can be done anywhere, with no one the wiser.
Try meditation, even a few minutes alone. Relaxing can make a huge difference. If you’re anxious, try yoga, walking, swimming, or biking. Exercise immediately reduces stress by releasing hormones called endorphins that give the body a natural high. Exercising also releases chemicals that encourage brain growth. Exercise has the same effect as antidepressants. So just get moving and you’ll feel better. Afterwards, take a bath. A warm bath instantly de-stresses us by calming our physiology and relaxing blood vessels.
Take time to check if you’re hungry:
Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry. Give the craving time to pass. It’s generally agreed that cravings come on strong and then slowly diminish over 3-5 minutes. There are two types of cravings – physical ones are the body’s reaction to withdrawal i.e. to sugar, nicotine, and alcohol. They are usually experienced as a tightness in the throat or belly, accompanied by feelings of tension or anxiety. Psychological ones are triggered by everyday events in your life. Those subconscious cues can trigger urges that are just as profound as physical ones. If you’re not physically hungry, take a few minutes to distract yourself until the urge to eat passes.
You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group. Experiencing the love of our families and friends creates a connection that releases inflammation-fighting DHEA and other chemicals in to the blood stream. Don’t underestimate the power of human connection as a form of instant stress reduction. There’s no question we all need more hugs and human contact. Even getting a massage releases anti-stress chemicals. If these options aren’t available, get a pet. Studies show that loving and being loved by pets lowers blood pressure and increases immune responses, counteracting the negative effects of stress. Many retirement homes encourage therapy animals so their patrons have something to nurture and cuddle.
Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, play with or walk your pet, read or listen to an audio book, surf the internet or call a friend. Listen to music- some, like classical, actually help stabilize our heart rate. Actively listening keeps the focus off of the inciting events that caused the stress. Even rhythmic activity such as knitting can divert attention to be more creative and productive.
Keep hard to resist or comfort foods out of your home. Make a shopping list when you go to the grocery store and stick to it. If you don’t have foods that tempt you, you can’t eat them.
Don’t shop when you’re emotionally upset, wait until you feel better; you’ll buy healthier choices. Prepare healthy snacks so they’re readily accessible.
Keep snacks healthy:
If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a low-fat, low-calorie snack, such as fresh fruit. A 50-calorie orange will satisfy your sugar urge while giving you the few minutes needed to relax, smell the citrus aroma, and think about what you’re eating while it’s being peeled. Eat vegetables with low-fat dip or unbuttered popcorn. Don’t eat a handful at once but rather savor each kernel. Or pistachios- one of the lowest calorie nuts that’s packed with healthy fats, fiber and keeps the sugar level stable (i.e. a low glycemic index as we discussed in last week’s post on Foods and How They Impact You). Then, take the time to eat them individually as they’re separated from their shells. Don’t deprive yourself. As we discussed in the GRADE diet, eat constantly, all the fruit, vegetables and white meat you want. Vary what you eat so you don’t feel deprived and trigger your cravings for comfort food. Eat until you’re full, which will occur quickly if you eat every two hours. And, drink lots of water to fill up sooner and encourage normal bowel activity. Staying hydrated also helps our body to handle all the chemical reactions that happen when we’re stressed. Then when you do occasionally eat a treat, you’ll be more inclined to put the spoon down sooner. Remember, sugars like chocolates may be enjoyable for a few moments, temporarily increasing those feel-good hormones of serotonin and dopamine, but it doesn’t last. Sugars actually cause an inflammatory response, which ultimately acts as a stressor to the body.
Don’t agonize or obsess over a lapse in judgement or a day you couldn’t follow your diet. Stressful situations cause a stress related hormone, cortisol, to be released, which then increases weight gain. Drinking black tea, unplugging devices, taking a time out, and not multitasking have all been associated with dropping cortisol levels. Let it go and move on to a fresh new day. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in eating healthier and exercising. Give yourself a pat on the back for making changes that, over time, will lead to a happier and healthy lifestyle.
Psychologist and Huffington Post blogger, Susan Albers, also recommends these tips:
Albers says the color red sends a strong message to our brain, telling us to “stop!”. Try eating with a red plate or put a red sign on your fridge. If that’s not enough to stop you from stress eating, it will at least make you more aware of your actions and give you a chance to choose differently.
Lend yourself a hand, the wrong hand:
If you’re right-handed, try eating with your left hand, and vice-versa. Using your non-dominant hand will slow you down and make you more mindful of your food- a central part of any healthy eating plan. It’ll also force you to slow down, giving you a chance to experience when your full sooner. It’s an easy and effective trick recommended by Albers. You can read more of Albers’ suggestions on her website, Mindful Eating.
In essence, learn to be aware of your mindset and how you feel. Are you eating because you’re hungry, or falling into the trap of comforting and smoothing out the issues of the day with food? It’s a common cycle for sabotaging weight loss efforts. Too often, we do things out of habit. Stop the cycle. Eliminating stress eating can be empowering. It’ll help you feel stronger, lose the weight, and keep it off. One day at a time.