In today’s 24/7 culture, life keeps many adults in a constant state of stress. Long work hours, an endless news cycle, and ever-expanding to-do lists are enough to send almost anyone into a mild state of panic.
In fact, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association reveals that more than 25% of adults in the United States rate their stress levels a whopping eight or higher on a 10-point scale.
Chronic stress may be a common experience, but it isn’t a trivial matter. It’s a health burden that can affect your relationships, interfere with your productivity, hobble your immune system, make it difficult to get restorative sleep, and leave you with physical aches and pains. Chronic stress can also make it much harder for you to maintain a healthy body weight.
Here at EMP 180° Weight Loss™, we know that achieving long-term weight loss is only possible when you have the skills and tools you need to successfully navigate the inevitable pitfalls along the way.
That journey often begins by taking a hard look at your eating habits to understand your cravings and binges, so you can cultivate a habit of mindful eating — even when your stress levels are through the roof. To learn how to identify and avoid stress eating, read on:
The link between mood and food
Stress eating, or mindlessly consuming food when faced with a challenging problem or a significant amount of pressure, can help soothe or suppress negative emotions for a few moments. Once all the extra calories are in, however, you’re still left facing the same stresses, and probably also feeling a little guilty besides.
To understand what makes you reach for a bag of chips or a bar of chocolate when you feel stressed, it’s important to know a bit about how stress affects your hormones. Chronic stress, the kind that persists and sometimes triggers negative emotions, causes your adrenal glands to release cortisol, a hormone that stimulates both appetite and motivation.
Being stressed out all the time causes your cortisol levels to remain abnormally high, triggering the urge to eat. This urge may be entirely subconscious, or it may be a conscious desire that feels uncontrollable or impulsive. Whatever form it takes, stress eating typically involves consuming high-calorie foods that are rich in fat, sugar, or both.
Stress eating is powerful because its soothing action is very real — fatty foods and sweet treats appear to have a feedback effect that helps suppress activity in the areas of your brain responsible for producing stress and negative emotions. Indeed, high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar foods aren’t called “comfort foods” for nothing!
Strategies to avoid stress eating
Stress eating may be a hormone-driven response, but it’s not entirely out of your control. That’s because it’s also a habit, and habits can be examined, broken, and replaced with healthier ones. Once you’ve mastered the following five strategies to avoid stress eating, you’ll be well on your way to cultivating more mindful eating habits.
1. Identify the problem
Before you can take steps to avoid stress eating, you have to know when and why you’re doing it, right? Keep a daily journal for at least two weeks that details what and when you eat, as well as how hungry you are and how you’re feeling both before and after eating.
You may also wish to rate your stress levels throughout the day, writing down any events or situations that cause you to feel negative emotions or a significant amount of pressure. Tracking your stress levels and emotions alongside your dietary patterns helps you pinpoint your stress eating triggers, which is the first step in avoiding them.
2. Set yourself up for success
Once you’ve realized that you’re capable of downing a pint of gelato when you’re stressed out, it’s time to create an eating environment that sets you up for success, not a failure.
Whether you tend to stress eat at home, in the office, or in your car, you should aim to snack strategically. This means keeping your favorite high-calorie binge foods out of your pantry, refrigerator, desk drawer, or purse. It also means keeping plenty of low-calorie or nutrient-dense snack foods on hand.
Replacing tempting foods like gelato with healthy, nutrient-dense foods — such as apple slices with almond butter, carrots and hummus, or cottage cheese with honey — won’t stop you from stress eating, but it helps ensure you don’t derail your weight loss efforts when you do use food to soothe negative emotions.
3. Tame your stress
Once you’ve made tempting comfort foods less readily available, you can focus on reducing or managing your stress levels. Using your daily journal as a guide, figure out which stressors you can remove from your life completely, and which stressors you simply need to manage more effectively.
For example, if taking on too much responsibility makes your stress levels skyrocket, practice politely saying “no” and setting boundaries that respect your personal limits. Because removing stress isn’t always an option, it’s also important to learn how to manage the way you respond to stress.
You can alleviate stress throughout the day simply by pausing for a few moments and focusing on your breathing. Tuning into your respiration helps slow your heart rate, calm your body, and return your mind to the present moment. Other effective stress management techniques include meditation, yoga, and exercise.
4. Drink more water
When stress prompts you to eat something, try drinking a glass of water instead. It may be surprising, but staying adequately hydrated can keep your body calm, improve your mood, and help mitigate your body’s stress response.
Like stress, dehydration also causes your cortisol levels to rise, stimulating your appetite as well as your motivation to eat. Studies show that even mild levels of dehydration can cause a significant increase in cortisol production.
Staying hydrated isn’t complex, and it doesn’t require you to keep track of how much water you consume each day. Instead, use the color of your urine as a guide. If your urine is clear or light yellow, you’re hydrated; if it’s dark yellow, you’re dehydrated. Aim to keep the color of your urine as light as possible throughout the day.
5. Replace the behavior
At the end of the day, the best way to stop stress eating is by altering your behavior and cultivating new habits. The next time you want to hop in your car and hit the drive-through, try going for a 15-minute walk instead. Distracting yourself with a healthier behavior allows you to experience different results, which helps strengthen your resolve each time you feel the urge to give in to old habits.
When you replace stress eating with a stimulating activity like exercise, talking to a friend, reading a book, or listening to music, your body will respond in kind, releasing feel-good endorphins to help reduce your stress levels naturally.
If you’re ready to conquer stress eating for good, we’d love to help. Our top-rated weight loss centers in Vienna, Virginia, and Rockville, Maryland, have given countless women and men the tools they need to lose weight and keep it off, for good. Call one of the offices today to schedule an appointment.
Not sure where to start?
Come into EMP180 to begin your weight loss journey. In addition to planning meals and snacks, we can help you explore the reasons behind over-eating and teach you how to manage difficult social occasions. Let’s work on establishing healthy habits that work for you and your lifestyle!
At EMP 180° we offer a personalized approach to nutrition and weight loss. We support you throughout your weight loss journey, giving you the tools to lose the weight and EMPowering you to keep it off—forever.